Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Second Burning of Richmond

by Ken Johnson

    We sit on the crest of a new dawn. The symbols of oppression that have stood over the people of color in Richmond for over a century are coming down.

April 2, 1865

    Thick black smoke filled the skies of Richmond, and the sky glowed red as Richmond burned. Early in the day, Confederate troops had set sensitive documents on fire in Richmond's streets as they were retreating from the city. The document fires had grown out of control, and the entire business district was now ablaze. The streets reeked of whiskey that the Confederate troops had poured into the streets. In the warehouse district, tobacco, cotton, and food had been set aflame. Tredegar Iron Works was burning with its ammunition going off, and in the river, ironclads were aflame with their ammunition also exploding. The Confederate army left the city for Union troops to take over.

    Except, the Confederacy has never really left Richmond. Standing upon his pedestal with an apparent aide-de-camp female form behind him atop a sixty-foot pillar overlooking the avenue of oppression, the larger than life Jefferson Davis, president of the failed Confederate States of America, looks down upon Monument Avenue.

    However, it is General Robert E. Lee, posed on a horse, but not his horse Traveller, that will be riding off into the sunset as the Confederacy finally leaves the city and ushers in a new day of a more inclusive Richmond.

    The beginnings of Monument Ave were first erected in 1890, when the General Robert E. Lee statue was unveiled, twenty-five years after the Confederate States of America lost the war and ceased to exist. The plans for the statue started in 1870, after Robert E. Lee's death.

    The next grouping of statues wasn't unveiled until 1907 when both Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stuart, a Confederate States of America Army general, were revealed to the public.

    General Stonewall Jackson didn't show up on Monument Avenue until over a decade later in 1919. And the final piece showed up ten years later, almost 65 years after the Confederate States of America lost the Civil War, honoring Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Confederate Navy officer.

    The six-story tall General Robert E. Lee statue is the only one of the motley assortment of memorials to a failed country that, despite being located in the city of Richmond, sits on state land. Governor Ralph Northam has announced that the Robert E. Lee statue will be removed from Monument Avenue as soon as possible. Richmond mayor Levar Stoney has stated he will propose the remaining four monuments to failure follow Robert E. Lee on July 1st, the first day it becomes legal for him to make such a proposition.

    No, removing the statues won't undo years of slavery and oppression that people of color have been subjected to in the United States. There is nothing that can fix the mass atrocities that people of color have been subjected to over the years. All we can do is work toward a harmonious future where we learn from our horrible past, and vow to never let it return.

June 6, 2020

    Protests over the murder of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis continue in Richmond. A large group of protesters has been active in Monroe Park on the VCU campus. As the night wanes on, the group diminishes. Before the last group vacates the park, ropes are tied around the spray-painted memorial to Confederate General Wickham, and the statue is pulled off the pedestal to the ground.

    Despite voting against succession, General Wickham served in the Confederate States of America Army and later in the Confederate Congress. The statue to him has stood in Monroe Park since 1891. The Monroe Park Conservancy, the organization that cares for Monroe Park, and two descendants of General Wickham, have wanted the statue removed since the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. They have not been allowed to remove it by state law despite Monroe Park having been closed from 2016 to 2018 for a redesign.

    Monument Avenue and the General Wickham statue are just the beginning. Just a few minutes away as the crow flies stands what appears to be a three-story monument to A.P. Hill, a Confederate general. Lying in his shadow is the two-story Linwood Holton Elementary school that highlights the conflict that continues to flow through Richmond.

    A.P. Hill, whose only claim to fame appeared to be that he led Lewis Ginter during the Civil War, is interred under the monument. A.P. Hill was initially buried in Hollywood Cemetery but was moved to the north side by Lewis Ginter, along with his memorial, in 1891.

    Linwood Holton, the elementary school's namesake, was the 61st Governor of Virginia and fought for equality during his tenure as governor. When desegregation of the public schools in Richmond was a hot button issue in the 1970s, Linwood Holton enrolled his children in mostly black public schools. He increased the number of people of color hired by the state government. We need to bring equality out of the shadow of oppression that continually looms over it like the A.P. Hill monument looms over the Linwood Holton Elementary school.

    Clearly, in 2020, it is time for A.P. Hill to return to Hollywood Cemetery so that the students at the Linwood Holton elementary school no longer have to learn in his shadow. The site of his statue would be an excellent location for a statue honoring Linwood Holton and could serve as a focal point for students at the school to learn about its namesake.

    The rest of the statues should be moved to an outdoor museum, possibly in East Henrico, where they can become part of a learning experience about what happened and why it can never be allowed to happen again.

    Once the symbols of past oppression move out, one lone statue will remain. The Arthur Ashe statue erected in 1996. The street that has stood as a symbol of oppression for over a century should instead stand as a symbol of inclusivity. Richmond should move Monument Avenue forward by replacing the old Confederate monuments with statues of people of color with a Richmond connection. This way, Arthur Ashe can stand as the beginning of the new Monument Avenue.

    The current statues can be replaced with statues honoring people like Christopher Jones, who sparked the 1867 streetcar sit-in in Richmond, Virginia Randolph, the child of slaves who founded the Virginia Randolph Training Center for African-American students, Henry Marsh, the first African-American mayor of Richmond, and L. Douglas Wilder, the first African-American governor of Virginia. These are just a few suggestions; the list goes on and on of people who have fought for equality in Virginia and could use recognition on the new Monument Avenue.

    Interestingly, the Jefferson Davis memorial, that sits at the intersections of Monument Ave and what used to be known as Cedar Avenue (which as a side point, should be returned to the name Cedar Avenue), marks the location of Star Fort, a Confederate bastion fort, whose boundaries are marked by the cannons on Monument Ave. A historical marker and an info plate would be appropriate here talking about the fort.

    The Civil War has been over for one hundred and fifty-five years. It is time for Richmond to stop living in the 19th century and move into the 21st century.