The Robert E. Lee statue is the only Confederate monument left standing on Monument Ave. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Richmond’s Statues of Limitation

A legal battle to block the removal of the city’s most iconic Confederate memorial shows how stubborn the past can be

At the root of any organism lives everything healthy and ill within it. Richmond, Virginia, is not simply an American city. Richmond is an American root. It shines with a municipal beauty that balances sleek modern design and breathtaking 19th-century architecture with wondrous foliage and landscaping. In its shadows lives the ugly of Richmond: its history as the capital of the Confederacy. Last week, within the first hour of my most recent visit to the city, I realized that encountering Richmond’s charms unattached to its historic racism is nearly impossible.

I rode into Byrd Park and passed Shields Lake, a seven-acre man-made pool where for years white locals swam leisurely until integration in the 1950s led to a ban on swimming. Byrd Park sits at the southern end of Arthur Ashe Boulevard. It also features several tennis courts on which Ashe, as a child growing up in Richmond, wasn’t allowed to play. On the east side of the park is an area once known as “the Devil’s half-acre” because slave auctions were held there and one of the cruelest slave jails in the Colonies stood there. It is now home to the Main Street railroad station, a farmers market, and a parking lot for Virginia Union University students.

Then there is the city’s pride and joy: Monument Avenue. The exquisite 5.4-mile drive, beautified by manicured street islands, trees the shape of mammoth broccoli, and the city’s most gorgeous homes, is the spine of Richmond’s biggest local and tourist attraction, the 14-block Museum District, highlighted by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and massive memorials of Confederate men who chose treason over the abolishment of slavery. “We’ve had these two counter-narratives co-existing since the very beginning,” says Bill Martin, a Richmond historian and director of the Valentine Museum. “There was Patrick Henry at St. John’s Church saying, ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ and just three blocks away you have Gabriel leading one of the early slave insurrections.”

After the deadly 2017 car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam — a Southern paradox himself who carries a strong record on race-related issues, yet was outed last year for wearing a racist costume as a medical student in 1984 — first announced his intent to banish Virginia’s tributes to the Confederacy. This past February, the state’s Democratic-led House and Senate passed legislation that gave Richmond the authority to remove any figures deemed offensive. Northam signed the bill in April, but the law wouldn’t go into effect until July 1.

History couldn’t wait. Following George Floyd’s killing on May 25, protesters toppled the statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue and Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park. On July 4, Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the statues of “Stonewall” Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury extracted from Monument Avenue. “Removing these monuments is not a solution to the deeply embedded racial injustices in our city and nation,” said Stoney. “But it is a down payment.”

Four of Monument Avenue’s five Confederate statues are now gone. The one that remains is the South’s most exalted hero, General Robert E. Lee. The statue initially belonged to the state, but the legislation transferred control of its fate to the mayor’s office on July 1. Certain Richmond residents were outraged; they would not stand for the cancellation of General Lee. A descendant of the family who deeded the land for the statue sued Gov. Northam on June 9, claiming the land should be the memorial’s permanent home. An anonymous plaintiff sought an injunction against Mayor Stoney, and the judge, Bradley B. Cavedo, obliged. On July 9, he banned the mayor from removing any more of Richmond’s Confederate memorials for 60 days. Then shit really hit the fan and Governor Northam was sued by residents of the Monument Avenue Historic District.

All this legal action landed me inside a room on the third floor of Richmond’s Circuit Court on Thursday, July 23, along with about 25 white people and one African American bailiff. For several hours, Judge William R. Marchant presided over two separate hearings, both to stop the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue.

Marchant had replaced Judge Cavedo, who recused himself after strong public outcry, claiming he wasn’t aware that his home sat within the boundaries of the historic district. “A horrific conflict of interest,” says Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum and former co-chair of the Monument Avenue Commission, which voted for the removal of the Confederate statues in 2018. “There’s no way he was unaware of where he lived,” she adds, before making a point to spotlight the city’s progression. “Old Richmond would’ve allowed that to go forward.”

The first hearing addressed a suit filed by William C. Gregory, the great-grandson of Roger and Betty Gregory, who signed over the statue and the land beneath it to the state of Virginia back in 1890. Gregory, sporting a lengthy gray ponytail, ill-fitting taupe suit, and red tie, sat next to his attorney as he presented the argument: The 130-year-old deed requires Richmond to deem the statue “perpetually sacred” and to “affectionately protect it.” When Gregory, who does not live on Monument Avenue or for that matter even in Richmond, took the stand, he insisted Lee’s removal would be “a slap in the face” to his family, bring him “emotional harm,” and would “debase and demoralize my heritage.” He has raised over $25,000 through GoFundMe to pay for his legal expenses.

Certain Richmond residents were outraged; they would not stand for the cancellation of General Lee.

I found the second hearing even more eye-opening. This suit, filed by six Monument Avenue residents (none of whom attended the hearing), asserted that the removal of the Avenue’s main attraction would lead to “profound damage” and “irreparable injury.” Unlike Gregory, they didn’t mean emotional harm — they meant financial. Their argument was that since the monument stands in a historic district, its removal would decrease their property values and threaten the tax breaks they get for residing there. “You would think they would be more concerned with injustice and the loss of life than the loss of a monument,” says Coleman.

Sitting in the courtroom, it became as clear as Richmond’s afternoon sky that Gregory and the Monument Avenue residents weren’t just defending the Confederacy in 2020; they were still doing its work. Aware that their identity was dying, they were wasting taxpayer coin to keep alive what Virginia’s attorney general called a “divisive and antiquated relic.” Moreover, these charlatans are blue-eyed and -blooded capitalists, and capitalists generally don’t give a fuck about anything or anyone outside of their personal interests and property. Of course, they’re oblivious to the country’s blaring conversation and heightened sensitivity around race. Memorials are more valuable to them than the living. After all, these are the progeny of a Confederate society in which prized possessions once breathed. Like their beloved Confederate generals in the Civil War, they will fight their own government to preserve their bad history and property.

On Monday, August 3, Judge Marchant blocked the removal of the Lee monument for 90 days, while the residents’ lawsuit is litigated; the next day, he dismissed William Gregory’s lawsuit. The fate of General Lee continues to hang in purgatorial suspense.

Today, the statue of General Lee is both a sad sight and site. Over the past two months, the 60-foot monument has been defaced with a saturated patchwork of paint color, names of Blacks slain by police, and signage ranging from “Black Lives Matter” to “Fuck Trump.” Once a beacon of delusional pride for the “Lost Cause,” it now looks like 12 tons of unwanted stone and bronze.

To Black folks in Richmond, the monument has been unwanted since it was first unveiled in the spring of 1890. And they weren’t alone. “When it first went up, the Black community railed against it, as did several members of the white community,” says Coleman. “Whether they were Confederate sympathetic, neutral, or otherwise, they didn’t think the statues were a good idea.”

Lee himself discouraged the idea of being immortalized. He wrote that a statue of him would fan old flames between the North and South. Richmond children, like other American students, weren’t fed this part of Lee’s biography. Instead, he was painted as a man who treated his human property humanely, not one who ordered his slave Wesley Norris and his sister to receive 50 lashes across their naked backs after a failed escape, or who spoke of Black slaves with devil-tongued empathy. “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race,” he wrote in an 1856 letter to his wife.

For Richmond, it’s not simply about old versus new, racist versus anti-racist, or an elected official who went from a student in blackface to iconoclast. The issue here is correct contextualization. Neither Lee nor the Confederacy nor the Monument Avenue plaintiffs accurately reflect Richmond today or tomorrow. The city is majority African American. Its mayor is Black. The lion’s share of its voters are anti-Donald Trump. Melody Barnes, the former senior domestic policy advisor for President Obama, lives on Monument Avenue. Most Richmond residents want nothing more than to disassociate themselves from Americans for whom property value, tax exemptions, and age-old lies matter more than actual lives.

When I suggested to Coleman that replacing the Confederate statues with the true fighters of Richmond’s past — like a Maggie Walker or Henry “Box” Brown — could perhaps be a progressive compromise, she concurred. “Personally, I’d like to see some sort of representation of ideals that aren’t wrapped in white supremacy. If you’re going to use people, I would like to see the people who spent a lifetime defending those ideals.”

Two days after the hearings, I spent the evening of Saturday, July 25 at the Lee statue. The atmosphere was deceptively quiet and peaceful. A sprinkling of young adults occupied patches of the large circle. A few shot jumpers at the two portable hoops, which have become fixtures of the monument grounds. An interracial couple shared a joint on the pedestal’s second tier. I was busy speaking to one of the area’s several self-appointed security guards, a masked Caucasian man who answered questions cautiously and identified himself facetiously as “Lighthouse Harry Lee,” the moniker of General Lee’s father. “Lighthouse” expressed strong disdain for Richmond police, and assured me no protester would be abused on his watch.

People gather around a basketball hoop set up next to the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/AFP/Getty Images.

While the monument’s scene was serene that night, Richmond was not. About a half-mile away, aggressive protesters chanting “We Stand With Portland” engaged with authorities at the Richmond Police Department’s headquarters. A truck was set on fire. Tear gas was thrown. The crowd scattered, reassembled, and, according to my new buddy Lighthouse, was gunning for the next closest precinct. “This is our home base,” he said while gripping the frame of a firearm concealed by the long T-shirt under his short vest. “When the rioters disperse, this is where they’re gonna come.” That meant the police would also be visiting General Lee later tonight.

Since the Floyd protests started and statues began coming down, the Richmond Police Department has doubled down on its aggression. “After George Floyd, in Richmond, it became about monuments and I think it’s now moving back to looking at the criminal justice system and specifically police behavior,” says Martin, the historian. “What was exposed during the last few weeks is that we have the same challenges with Richmond police as other places do with their police.”

“The statues are symbolic of the movement, but they are not the movement,” says Coleman. “The key here is not to find complacency, but to stay focused on the inequities.”

As Lighthouse and I conversed about Virginia being an open-carry state, a short, stout white woman in a black mask urgently interrupted to inform us that someone in an all-black Chevy F150 allegedly shot at a couple of protesters. No one was hit, but she was concerned that the truck may find its way to the monument later, looking for a bigger target.

“There’s a heat between the past and this demand for change. These two things are rubbing against each other and the sparks are in the air right now.”

Richmond has tried politically, constitutionally, and socially to reckon with its dark past. The city commissioned its artist community to balance the town’s Confederate presence with freshly painted murals and installations. Numerous festivals, museums like VMFA and The Valentine, and the historically African American neighborhood Jackson Ward have committed their spaces to illuminating the city’s prideful diversity. Mere feet from the shameful United Daughters of the Confederacy Museum stands the great Kehinde Wiley statue Rumors of War, an African American male with dreadlocks commanding a horse — a clear equestrian counterpoint to the generals of the red, white, and blue.

While there were originally five Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, the total number of statues was six. The sixth and youngest is of Arthur Ashe. Protesters left Ashe’s memorial untouched, but the day after the Jefferson Davis statue was toppled, the Ashe memorial was vandalized with “White Lives Matter” graffiti. “There’s a heat between the past and this demand for change,” says Martin. “These two things are rubbing against each other and the sparks are in the air right now.”

“We’re about to shoot this out!” Lighthouse and I immediately zone in on another security guard — this one Black — walking swiftly past us, shouting while gripping a semi-automatic rifle. Lighthouse taps his firearm twice — some kind of instinctive switch for him to get into battle form — and without uttering another syllable darts toward his truck for what I can only assume (because I got the fuck out of there) was more artillery. Someone received word that the F150 was headed our way. The Black security guard yelled again: “If you do not have a weapon, you should leave now for your safety!”

Yes, much of Richmond is ready to bury the “ole” from tomorrow’s good days, but when a city’s legacy of slavery and its Confederate roots run deeper than most American cities, its demons will not lay down and forfeit. They will reincarnate and go to extreme lengths — via lawsuits, spray paint, or pistols — to keep Richmond in its yesteryear. There’s a clear line being drawn in Virginia’s capital. Folks just have to decide which side of history they’re on.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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