Confronting the Memorial Landscape

June 24, 2020

Lee monument lit up with BLM and Juneteenth flag colors

By Michael Dickinson, Emilie Raymond, & Ryan Smith

We are witnessing a watershed moment in the history of Virginia’s commemorative landscape. At the start of 2020, the commonwealth had more public Confederate symbols than any other state in the union, and the capital city of Richmond served as the centerpiece for those memorials. After the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police in May 2020, protests rose around the nation and the world against such racialized violence. In Richmond, those protests soon localized around Monument Avenue, just blocks away from our history department, and where statues raised from 1890 through 1929 glorified Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. Some activists directed their outrage and frustrations at the monuments, splattering them with paint and using them for speech platforms, projections, tags, and new artwork that challenged and transformed their symbolism. In June 2020, Governor Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney declared their intentions to remove these Confederate memorials. Soon groups of protesters toppled the Davis statue and those of other Confederates beyond the avenue, including the Richmond Howitzer monument on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

We feel it essential for our department to acknowledge these recent events while continuing to engage students and the public by historicizing these structures and recognizing their continued relevance in public discourse. It remains incumbent upon us as historians to inform and contextualize continued discussions about memorialization, Richmond history, and racial oppression. Leading up to and through this moment, our department’s public history faculty and students have been attuned to these memorials’ history and contexts, and we have explored them in our classes, institutional partnerships, and scholarly works, as well as at public hearings and with the media. We have focused on the historical context of Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement during which these statues were raised, the artistic traditions the statues embody, the meanings they have held for different groups and over time, and the connections they trace with events and social conditions elsewhere. Such approaches are part of what makes the practice of public history in Richmond so vital. As policy makers consider the fates of Confederate Monuments in particular, one fact remains certain: the need for historical contextualization of public memorials is of continued significance as our society grapples with questions of equity, reconciliation, and historical memory.

Therefore, we believe that the public history mandate of our department remains all the more significant in the current climate. In the lead-up to this moment, we have led our students on field trips down Monument Avenue to inspect the statues, analyze how the monuments work on the landscape, and discuss personal reactions to them. The same goes for lesser known statues like the now-removed General Williams Carter Wickham monument in Monroe Park and the Richmond Howitzers monument at Park Avenue, as well as newer works in conversation with the Confederate monuments, like Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War on Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Our students have done research papers on the development of Monument Avenue as a whole and on individual monuments, in assignments ranging from short papers and lesson plans to M.A. theses, such as Brandon Butterworth’s “Interpreting the War Anew: An Appraisal of Richmond’s Civil War Centennial Commemoration.”

Our institutional partnerships have provided outlets for students to present their work, as when M.A. student Will Tharp recently pitched his vision for contextualizing the Hoffbauer military murals featuring General Lee to an executive at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and when Prof. Katy Shively’s students displayed research posters at the grand reopening of the American Civil War Museum in 2019.

Internships at these and other historic sites, museums, and libraries give our students opportunities to engage with the public about the Civil War and Reconstruction. These positions have inspired them to combine the military and political angles related to the monuments with the social history and individual stories that audiences crave, as Woodie Walker (M.A. ’20) explains in his post “Exploding Expectations.” While we continue to discover and incorporate new, dynamic approaches to further inform our research, teaching, and public outreach, we believe that such efforts to encourage and equip others, whether VCU students or neighbors, to better understand the built environment of Richmond is of utmost importance.

As seen over the past four weeks, the monuments have increasingly become embroiled in policy debates, and our faculty have highlighted the complexities of historical context and material culture in these discussions. We have analyzed the Monument Avenue Commission Report, both its process and findings, with our students, and encouraged them to attend public hearings. In the commission’s aftermath, VCU established a similar body, on which Profs. John Kneebone and Katy Shively have served, to account for and make recommendations on the vestiges of the Confederacy on VCU’s campus. At a city council meeting, Prof. Emilie Raymond spoke in favor of Councilwoman Kim Gray’s successful effort to provide city funds for a monument honoring the “Forgotten Fourteen” of the United States Colored Troops, one of the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission.

Our faculty specialize in many topics that shed light on Richmond’s monumental landscape, including the Civil War and Reconstruction, public history, material culture, African American history, slavery, memory, and the civil rights movement. We have shared our research in academic books and articles as well as online publications, media interviews, and other venues that reach broad public audiences. Some recent pieces include Prof. Michael Dickinson’s “Black Realities and White Statues: The Fall of Confederate Monuments”and Prof. Ryan Smith’s “Rumors of War Arrives in the South.” Prof. Greg Smithers contributed to a story on the role of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in establishing and maintaining Confederate statues. In one of several appearances on C-SPAN, Prof. Katy Shively discussed Confederate General Jubal Early’s contribution to the Lost Cause ideology that the statues exemplify. And Dickinson recently appeared on CNN’s “The Situation Room” to discuss the future of monuments across the U.S.

Meanwhile, our department has been at the forefront of efforts to highlight the history of slavery so as to recover stories, broaden the memorial landscape, and challenge Lost Cause interpretations of the region’s past. For example, M. A. student Ana Edwards, chair of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, led the reclamation of the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood as an international site of conscience related to the slave trade. Prof. Karen Rader co-chaired the university’s Implementation Committee on Internment and Memorialization for the East Marshall Street Well Project. Prof. Sarah Meacham engaged graduate students with the public programming at Wilton House related to the history of slavery. Prof. Ryan Smith’s Richmond Cemeteries project contrasts the area’s Confederate cemeteries with African American cemeteries and works toward the latter’s restoration. Prof. Bernard Moitt has put all this in a transnational comparative context with his study abroad program to Barbados, now in its 23rd year. And graduate students, including Meghan Naile, Kerry Dahm, and Peighton Young, have written public-history oriented theses on the subject. Indeed, our goal is to engage and inform public discourses as historians, and we encourage our students to do the same.

Amid all these efforts, the present activity at Richmond’s Monument Avenue has captured the eyes of the world in a revolutionary moment. For now, a judge has extended a court injunction to July 23 against the removal of the Lee statue, and Richmond city council will make its recommendations on the rest of the avenue’s Confederate monuments later this summer, even as some activists seek to take action before then. Whatever their fate, our department will continue to provide unparalleled opportunities to frame, explore, and contest the memorial landscape.