What Richmond Has Gotten Right About Interpreting Its Confederate History

And why it hasn’t faced the same controversy as New Orleans or Charlottesville

Monument Avenue In Richmond, Virginia
Monument Avenue In Richmond, Virginia traveler1116 / iStock

In the past couple of weeks, how we remember and commemorate the Civil War has undergone seismic shifts. The city of New Orleans is in the process of removing four monuments that celebrate Confederate leaders and an 1874 attempt by white supremacists to topple Louisiana's biracial Reconstruction government. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a court injunction temporarily halted the city's plans to sell its Robert E. Lee monument while alt-right leader Richard Spencer led a torchlight protest this past weekend reminiscent of Klan rallies of the past. White supremacist support for the Lee statue will likely strengthen and broaden the call to remove this and other Confederate monuments throughout the city. Curiously, however, the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, has not seen a similar outcry. Why?

The city boasts some of the most significant sites of Confederate commemoration. Its famed Monument Avenue is studded with massive statues of Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart along with the president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Thousands of Confederate soldiers and officers, and Davis himself, are buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery—a sacred space for white Southerners grappling with defeat. Veterans’ reunions, battlefields, monument dedications, parades and the opening of the Confederate Museum in 1896 helped solidify the city itself as a shrine to Confederate memory by the beginning of the 20th century. If ever a city was ripe for calls to remove Confederate monuments, it is Richmond.

But beyond scattered acts of vandalism, locals have remained largely quiet. Part of the reason why is that over the years, the city has recognized changing perceptions of the Confederacy—and officials have addressed concerns that public spaces devoted to the city’s past do not sufficiently reflect Richmond’s diversity.

In the past few decades, Richmond has dedicated new monuments that have greatly expanded its commemorative landscape. A statue of homegrown tennis star Arthur Ashe joined Monument Avenue in 1996—arguably one of its most high-profile and controversial additions. While some Richmonders welcomed the statue, others argued that it would “disrupt the theme of the avenue,” and both its supporters and detractors mocked the statue itself.

In 2003, the city dedicated a monument of Abraham Lincoln and his son to mark the president’s April 1865 visit following the abandonment of Richmond by the Confederate government. The dedication helped re-interpret Lincoln's visit as a symbol of slavery’s end as opposed to the entrance of a conquering tyrant. While in Richmond just 11 days before his assassination, Lincoln famously corrected newly freed slaves who knelt at his feet: "Don’t kneel to me,” Lincoln responded. "That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy." Four years after the Lincoln statue was erected, the city installed the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue, a 15-foot bronze sculpture depicting two enslaved individuals embracing not far from the center of Richmond's former slave market.

The Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, located on the grounds of the capitol building and dedicated in 2008, celebrates the efforts of African-American students in rural Prince Edward County. Their decision to protest the condition of their school led to one of the lawsuits that comprised the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.

Taken together, these monuments point to a city that in recent years has proven a willingness to acknowledge its dark past, using its public spaces to highlight history that reflects and inspires the entire community. This goodwill is also revealed in monuments that the community declined to erect. In 2008, the Sons of Confederate Veterans hoped to place a statue of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his son and Jim Limber—a mixed-race boy who lived with Davis and his family for approximately one year—on the grounds of the American Civil War Center near the Lincoln statue. The SCV hoped to highlight what they believed was Davis's liberal outlook on race, but the deal ultimately fell through after the museum, a private institution, revealed it would use the statue to demonstrate "how people choose to remember" history.

Over the course of the five-year sesquicentennial of the Civil War, no city was more active than Richmond. In addition to Virginia’s official state commission, numerous city institutions joined forces not to celebrate the war (as was the case 50 years earlier during the centennial), but to work toward understanding it in its totality, including slavery and emancipation. Museums large and small, including the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, National Park Service, American Civil War Museum, Virginia Historical Society and Museum of the Confederacy, offered a wide range of lectures and educational programs and new exhibits, while The Future of Richmond's Past hosted a series of community conversations about the history and memory of the war that attracted roughly 2,000 residents.

The collective narrative that emerged by the end of the sesquicentennial would have been unidentifiable to white Richmonders who experienced the centennial in the early 1960s. The centennial catered to an exclusively white audience that featured reenactments of major battles and focused on honoring the soldiers on both sides without acknowledging slavery as the cause of the war or emancipation as its most important result. One civil rights leader described it as a "stupendous brain-washing exercise. This time around, Civil War events attracted segments of the community who had never considered the city's Civil War and its continued relevance to their own lives and the broader community.

No program better reflected the tone of Richmond’s Civil War self-reflection than its culminating event, which took place in April 2015, a week before the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy’s surrender. At night artists projected simulated flames against buildings in the area that were burned by fleeing Confederates. Black and white Union troop reenactors and an Abraham Lincoln impersonator marched triumphantly through city streets before throngs of visitors. The event marked not just the defeat of the Confederacy, but also the liberation of a large segment of the city's black population. Among the keynote speakers was Mayor Dwight C. Jones, who is African-American. He characterized the event as "a testament of just how far we've come."

Before the end of the war, Richmond was the United States’ second-largest hub of slave dealing. Today, it continues to preserve and come to terms with its connection to slavery and the slave trade. Ongoing efforts to preserve Lumpkin’s Slave Jail and Archaeological Site, uncovered in 2005, engage and challenge the community on how best to interpret and memorialize the city's legacy.

In the wake of the murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof in 2015, Richmond's historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church—known to many as the "Cathedral of the Confederacy"—removed plaques honoring Lee and Davis and images of the Confederate battle flag to an area in the building where they could be properly interpreted. The church continues to host public forums to discuss this decision and has invited historians to engage the church community about the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are plans to erect a memorial to honor the enslaved community of St. Paul's Episcopal.

Richmond's efforts in this area have not been without missteps, nor have they allayed suspicions of older African-Americans who have lived too long in a community that refused to see beyond its sites of Confederate memory. In a Boston Globe report about the city’s Confederate past, African-American community activist Ana Edwards remarked, ““Right now, truly, these monuments are just literally the grandest things the city shows off, and therefore it represents us. This is hard. It makes you feel like you live in two different places.”

At some point, Richmond may experience the same demands to remove Confederate monuments that have been heard elsewhere. But for now, it may be more helpful to reflect on why this hasn't yet taken place in the former Confederate capital. Perhaps Richmond offers other communities important lessons about how they can successfully navigate the many landmines at the intersection of history and memory.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, now available in paperback and the forthcoming collection of essays, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites. He is currently working on Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth for the University of North Carolina Press. You can find him online at his website: Civil War Memory and on Twitter.

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