Sunday, June 28, 2015

About Those Monuments

The Confederate flag controversy that exploded following the nine murders in Charleston landed on millions of Facebook pages. My Facebook posts of articles about the flag and other commemorations of the Confederacy, etc., brought in a range of comments. Some of the more entertaining reactions were prompted by a facetious post of mine: 
With the way Richmond has allowed for some plain old buildings to get decorated with murals, mostly with good results, maybe City Hall has enough time before the UCI World Road Cycling Championships, in September, to get some artists to wrap the Confederate monuments in town with fabric -- a la Christo. Maybe throw some abstract expressionist tarps over them, or whatever. We've got the artists who could pull it off right here in town.
It inspired some wiseacre responses, as I hoped it would. But I also hoped it would goose Richmonders into thinking about how the rest of the world sees Monument Avenue's famous sculptures on pedestals 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Of course, there were folks who took my satirical suggestion to wrap them seriously. Some enthusiastically agreed. Others disagreed, fearing a papering over of history would result.

However, it has become obvious we're living through a momentous time – a tipping point, to do with symbolism referring to the so-called Lost Cause. Hey, I never expected to hear Republican statewide office holders in South Carolina call for the removal of the Stars and Bars from its flagpole on statehouse grounds. The momentum to retire that same image from license plates, etc., ASAP, has skipped to other states – including Virginia.

Stemming from the sea change underway, just how many public commemorations of the Confederacy will be affected remains to be seen. For the time being the focus is mostly on flags. Which makes some sense, because flags are graphic symbols of ideas and events. What about public schools and bridges named after Confederate heroes?

The flags can easily be put in museums. Renaming a bridge might ruffle feathers, but it won't be all that difficult. Bringing it all the way home, what to do about heroic sculpture in our midst that's extremely offensive to a significant portion of the community is a problem not so easily solved in a lasting way.

The story of how the statues situated on Richmond's most recognized tourist attraction got there is interesting enough. Yet how the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback was generally viewed when it was unveiled in 1890 and how it is generally viewed in 2015 is different.

That needs to be addressed, but there's a complication. So many people who grew up in Richmond still believe what amounts to pickled history. Letting loose of the propaganda many Virginians were spoon-fed as children will be nearly impossible for some folks.

In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in all public junior high schools — as decreed by the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph's veracity. Now those words read quite differently.

Tomorrow, if not sooner, Richmond's citizenry needs to start a conversation about Monument Avenue. It would be nice if leaders would lead. Yes, there will be people who will want to bulldoze the Lee Monument, even though some of Richmond's most respected art experts say it's pretty good art. It's a stretch to say that of the Davis Monument.

Some of my Facebook friends have suggested moving the Confederate statues to a museum or a theme park. Hey, I'm ready to dismantle the Jefferson Davis eyesore on Monument Avenue today and ship it down to Mississippi – his home state.

However, the suggestions that appeal to me the most, so far, go something like this: 
  • Add signage around the monuments to put them in a context, which would turn Monument Avenue into a museum of a sort.
  • Add more monuments to the stately avenue, statues of Virginians who we now want to celebrate; maybe less emphasis on war.  
Two of the first names for new monuments that come to mind for me are Maggie Walker and Lewis Powell. The aforementioned discussion would surely produce more names and additional ideas worth considering. Such a discussion might also open the door to an investigation of how our history books were cooked to facilitate denial and glorify infamy. Who did that? Why?

Regardless of our views about today's political issues, all of us in Richmond probably need to know more about our city's slave market days before the Civil War. That dark chapter of local history needs a good deal more sunlight cast upon it.

These discussions have been a long time coming. As far today's school children in Richmond are concerned, better late than never.

-- 30 -- 
--Words and photo by F.T. Rea

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