What place should monuments to the Confederacy have in today’s cities? It’s a question that touches on deep nerves for many communities across the U.S. Now Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, is trying to handle that conversation with civility. But in the first of a series of public forums on the issue, tensions ran high.
The discussion was supposed to be about how to add context to Richmond’s Confederate statues, and what new monuments the city could build.
But it was clear from the start many were having a different conversation.
“You lost, get over it already!” shouted one speaker, George Knight. “Get rid of your participation trophies on Monument Avenue, get rid of your flags!”
“Down with white supremacy!” he continued to both applause and jeers.
Knight was followed by Travis, who said he wouldn’t like to see any additional statues on Monument Avenue.
“There’s an entire rest of the city to add statues to whatever you-so-choose to do,” said Travis. “Monument Avenue is a Confederate memorial in and of itself, and I do not want to see any monuments on there for any of them low-down, invading, murdering, raping, looting, burning heathens from the North -- when they came down here.”
Travis, who requested his last name not be used, said he probably shouldn't have yelled, but that previous speakers had fired him up.
Comments were directed to the city’s Monument Avenue Commission, a group of scholars and historians charged by Richmond’s mayor with developing a list of ideas for how best to tackle the city’s complicated history without removing the statues. But for some in attendance, like Thelma Brown, that’s the wrong starting point.
“I stand here on the backs of my ancestors who helped build Virginia, however I do not see that reflected on Monument Avenue,” Brown said. “And I don’t think anyone that wants to oppress a particular group, there’s nothing heroic about it.”
Brown says adding context just isn’t enough. The monuments need to come down.
“I just don’t think that there is a place for that,” she said earlier in the evening, before being called to speak. “Virginia has a debt to pay that they’ve never paid.”
Learn More and Share Your Opinion: MonumentAvenueCommission.org
As Richmond continues to hold public forums, the city is trying to strike a delicate balance and communities across the state are watching closely. Gregg Kimball is co-chair of the commission and a historian with the Library of Virginia.
“Just about every county in the state has a Confederate monument sitting in its county seat. And I’m sure many more memorials,” Kimball said. “We all know what’s happening in Charlottesville right now, and in fact there’s also a legal case in Danville related to this. And I think Mayor Stoney, one of his viewpoints is ‘We can’t just ignore this and act like it’s not happening. It is happening.’”
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has repeatedly said the effort should be two-pronged: adding context to the existing statues, and tackling the lingering effects of the Confederacy -- like the city's crumbling public schools and housing projects.
Stoney wasn’t at the first public meeting, but Greg Kimball was. After things wrapped up he expressed slight disappointment at some of the responses.
“I wish more people had been more direct in answering those questions and offering really concrete suggestions. We did have some of that though, and I think what we heard was good,” Kimball said.
And while Kimball admits that it can get messy to hear directly from people face-to-face, he says its necessary.
For Barry Isenhour, who feels the monuments don’t need context, the alternative is not having the conversation at all.
“This is an unnecessary exercise in futility. The monuments do not need to have any kind of interpretation. Just leave ‘em alone, they don’t hurt anybody,” said Isenhour, a member of the Virginia Flaggers. “But they do tell a story and the story is about people who were willing to stand up as veterans and defend this state against an invasion.”
But for many that’s not the story the monuments tell. And it can be difficult to agree on the stories of our past, when they still feel very much in the present.