Richmond’s Infamous Icon

Credit: National Geographic

By Peter Galuszka

Since 1890, the Robert E. Lee Monument has dominated Richmond’s grand Monument Avenue and has stood as a striking protector of the state’s long history of systemic racism.

True, other Confederate heroes such as Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart also found a memorial spot on the Avenue but Lee has always been the main one. He has been a sentimental touchstone for romantics of the Lost Cause and of derision about people hurt by the system.

Now, Richmond and Virginia are paying a price for more than a century of refusing to own up to what it all really meant.

The famed National Geographic magazine has made a cover photo of the defaced Lee statue repurposed as a memorial to George Floyd, the Black man who was killed by police after he was arrested and handcuffed.

The Geographic was listing the top photos of 2020, a wild and depressing year that brought the coronavirus pandemic, riots in cities and the constant chaos of Donald Trump.

That’s not all. In October, The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that the defaced Lee monument was the most influential work of art since World War II.

In terms of marketing, such attention by the top powers of the Mainstream Media wouldn’t be considered a good thing for Richmond, which has always resisted moving into the future. While the city has been enjoying a pre-COVID renaissance in arts and culture, the past sticks to it like kudzu.

But then, Richmond is getting what it deserves. Even today, there are bitter legal battles over removing the Lee statue. The others have been taken down. The statue proponents are insisting that outsiders do not understand the real meaning of Lee and the others.

Their stubbornness flies against a profound reassessment of the systemic racism that has crippled Richmond, the state and the country. It is long overdue although some on this blog believe that systemic racism, like the Trump Administration, does not exist.

With exquisite timing, author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson has come out with a provocative new book that explores how caste, and not just racism, has shaped America. “Caste: the Origin of Our Discontents” notes that Blacks have always been forced into the lowest caste ranks. She also wrote the magnificent “The Warmth of Other Suns,” a study of the Black diaspora from the South to the North over the years.

Wilkerson argues that racism is an insufficient term, since parentage and blood mixing have always been going on and make it hard to determine what “race” a person really is. As structured by a society, such as America or India, caste puts a permanent definition on the rungs on the ladder. It is done by slavery, laws, social restrictions on marriage, job hiring, housing, medical care and other factors.

And, of course, Virginia is strong on the lists of “firsts.”

The first slaves brought to the English colonies arrived on the Virginia peninsula in 1619.

The first restriction on race mixing happened in 1630, when the Virginia General Assembly sentenced Hugh Davis to public whipping for having “abused himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians by defiling his body by lying with a Negro.”

At the same time, the woman was considered the bearer of race and caste, instead of the man, who had before been the determining factor. In so doing, Black slaves could be breeders of half-white children who will still be regarded as “colored.” They were automatically slaves and could be forced to work or be sold. That made Black women profit centers, Wilkerson writes.

In another “first,” in 1691, Virginia became the first colony to outlaw marriage between blacks and whites, a ban that the majority of states would take up for the next three centuries, Wilkerson notes.

In 1924, Virginia passed the strictest racial definition in the country. a “White” was one who had completely “White” blood unmixed by any other.

About that time,  when German Nazis were considering a vast social structuring to ensure the dominance of Aryans over inferiors such as Jews and Eastern Europeans, they turned to the United States for the best examples of how to boost eugenics and erect an efficient system based on caste and race. Guess which state was a favored model?

I haven’t finished the “Caste” book but I highly recommend it. Meanwhile, the reconciliation of things like the Lee statue is long overdue.

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80 responses to “Richmond’s Infamous Icon

  1. Please give specific examples of “the systemic racism that has crippled Richmond, the state and the country”. Please give examples of how the country has not progressed since the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Thank you.

  2. Eugenics – Margaret Sanger comes to mind.

  3. Peter,

    The following line is an outright fallacy:

    “Years later, when German Nazis were considering a vast social structuring to ensure the dominance of Aryans over inferiors such as Jews and Eastern Europeans, they turned to the United States for the best examples of how to boost eugenics and erect an efficient system based on caste and race. Guess which state was a favored model?”

    The Nazi’s followed California’s model for eugenics, California as well as NY’s push for eugenics was funded by the Harriman railroad money, the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller foundation. California’s leaders in eugenics went so far as you go to Germany to learn their processes.

    The fact that California had eugenics laws (1909) on the books about 15 years prior to Virginias passage of the Sterilization Acts (1924).

    I can’t even understand how you’ve managed to construct an article with so many factual errors. Oh you want another morsel of information that will be uncomfortable to you?

    W.E.B DuBois was a proponent of eugenics for his own race.

    • Oh, that makes me feel so much better about it….

      • I’m sorry to give the impression that makes it better, I just was pointing out the inaccuracies in the provided post.

        The quip about W.E.B. DuBois is simply because eugenics is framed as a way that “white men” sought to breed out the “believed” shortcomings of the “inferior” race. He’s backing and stance illustrates that simply not the case. Does it make that outlook correct, no. However, it provides context that is missing.

    • Mr. Galuszka wants to talk about the proponents of eugenics?

      Sure, let’s do that. Democrats are big supporters of Planned Parenthood which can trace its roots back to Margaret Sanger. Now there’s a gem.

      “To examine Sanger’s writings is to take a trip into a horrific world of dehumanizing rhetoric and even more dehumanizing practical programs. For Sanger the world was divided into the “fit” and the “unfit” – those who she deemed worthy of being allowed to reproduce, so as to increase the quality of the human race, and those who should be forcibly prevented from reproducing through compulsory sterilization and segregation.”

      “The first step would be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, epileptics,” she wrote in a document called My Way to Peace. “The second step would be to take an inventory of the second group, such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate them on farms and open spaces.”

      “Segregate them on farms and open spaces.” In other words, concentration camps for the unfit.

      The state, she urged, must “apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” In all, she estimated that some five million “mental and moral degenerates” would have to be segregated.

      “In the end, inspired by her thinking and that of other eugenicists, dozens of U.S. states did put in place forcible sterilization programs, in which tens of thousands of people deemed unfit were sterilized – an enormous black eye on this country’s human rights record.”

  4. The material is from the book. It is not mine. If you have a beef, take it up with the author.

    • Why, you’re the one repeating it without even bothering to research it yourself.

      It’s labeled as nonfiction, which is clearly not correct. Since 2016 it’s been all about “fake news” and “disinformation” by not doing your due diligence, you’re repeating that fallacious information.

      Instead of reading what feeds your own confirmation bias, read actual history yourself and formulate an opinion based in facts.

      • “Instead of reading what feeds your own confirmation bias, read actual history yourself and formulate an opinion based in facts.”

        Matt – Haven’t you heard? That’s no longer allowed. Deplorables need people from the “expert class” to tell us what to think.

        • The damage that has been done to our history education is unimageable. Some parts of history are inconvenient, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be discussed or viewed in context of the day.

          Presentism is a bane on society.

          Oh and the book Peter cited, the author doesn’t have a clue about India or the caste system.

    • Oh for Pete’s sake! Or as aptly said below, St. Pete’s sake. PG, you’re an experienced journalist who knows the rules on quoting material that you know is suspect without attempting to verify it or distance yourself from it — yet you hide behind the “if you have a beef take it up with the author” line.

      That said, it is perfectly true that over 30 states passed eugenics/mandatory sterilization laws back in the Jim Crow days and after WWI. Virginia, in the 20s, was a relative late-comer to that party. Betterment of mankind’s gene-pool — along with the notion that race was one measure of inferiority — certainly had its day in this country as well as widely across other parts of the western world.
      If you accept that intelligence is entirely inherited and education simply provides a little social polish to the man, a common belief at the turn of the 20th Century, why wouldn’t you vote for State-sanctioned selective breeding for smarts?

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Oh please St. Pete. Move on. You won your personal war against southern culture and history. Is that all you were ever really about?

  6. “It is long overdue although some on this blog believe that systemic racism, like the Trump Administration, does not exist.”

    Who on this blog has denied the existence of the Trump Administration?

    “The famed National Geographic magazine has made a cover photo of the defaced Lee statue repurposed as a memorial to George Floyd, the Black man who was killed by police after he was arrested and handcuffed.”

    “But then, Richmond is getting what it deserves.”

    “It is long overdue…”

    Is it lawful to deface government property if you believe your cause to be just? Is that how the rule of law works? Isn’t the message?

    Would it be okay for descendants of the Japanese internment camps to deface the statue of FDR?

  7. Their interment was a travesty.

  8. Baconator with extra cheese

    Since the graffiti is now “art” I hope the keep the “Stoney Phony” and “Fu_k The Police” forever… those messages are “true” monuments to Richmond’s disfunction.

  9. I remember Carrie Buck, too

  10. Q: When National Geographic displayed their cover photo did they include all the obscenities and slurs against police?

    “systemic racism”- for when you absolutely, positively, need to blame something on racism but are lacking things . . . like evidence.

  11. Since when is Ms. Wilkerson’s work “not actual history?” Have you read anything she’s written?

  12. I agree with Peter. Those statues are “off topic” and have been for years. Robert E Lee wasn’t from Richmond. He wasn’t born there, didn’t grow up there and didn’t retire there. In fact, he made it clear that he wanted neither the Civil War nor his role in that war memorialized. Yet, at the turn of the 20th century (decades after the Civil War ended) upper crust Richmonders did just that – memorialized the Civil War and Robert E Lee. This was done at the start of Jim Crow, at the time the racist and segregationist 1902 Virginia constitution was written. It’s really hard not to see a six story statue of Robert E Lee erected against the wishes of the man himself as anything but an example of systemic racism.

    The Robert E Lee monument in Richmond was dedicated in 1890. The leaders of the City of Richmond had 130 years to evolve from celebrating the Confederacy to becoming a historical city memorializing the Civil War. It never happened. Where are the statues of Abraham Lincoln, US Grant, etc? Richmond could have become “the Civil War city” like Williamsburg became the colonial Virginia city. But it didn’t. It stayed “the Confederate City”. Very unfortunate.

    • Colonial Williamsburg is teetering on BK, but then so is Richmond.

    • Agreed. And the Lee Statue was in fact the opening gambit of a giant (for its day) real estate development venture, intended to attract the moneyed folk in Richmond to the new, grand “Monument Avenue” to build their new, grand homes there. And the venture succeeded very well!

      • Kind of. In 1890 when the statue was erected Richmond had a population of 81,000+. Thirty years later the population had swelled to 171,000+. Today the city has 230,000+. In 1890 Atlanta had a population of 65,000+. Thirty years later Atlanta had a population of 200,000+. Today it has a population of 506,000+.

        This pattern has repeated itself all over the South. Cities that were smaller than Richmond became national powerhouses while Richmond languished.

        • Careful. Remember, only VA has independent cities so if you are going to compare, use MSAs….but your basic point is valid.

          • True. And the City of Atlanta is 135 sq mi while the City of Richmond is just under 60 sq mi. The city / county divide in Virginia has made annexation difficult (and has basically been banned for decades now). But the City of Richmond was a populous in 1950 as it is now. That’s the part which is hard to understand.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Mr. DJ it is true that Lee did not want any sort of memorials to remember his name. The same can be said of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. The monument in DC is very much against his wishes. We therefore should disassemble it, ship it to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood in Atlanta, and all we be correct.
      One of King’s last speeches about his own eulogy.

  13. Ripper. Agree about Richmond. People from other parts of the state are friendlier and from farther South even more. Take Bacon. He’s friendly. But then he’s not from Richmond despite how hard he tried to be.

    • But to be from Richmond, don’t you have to be FFV?

      • Fresh Fruits & Vegetables?

      • You know, anytime anyone from Virginia uses the term “carpetbagger”, I feel compelled to remind them that Virginia had to use a carpetbagger electrical contractor from New Jersey to get their electric chair working.

        Which is probably a good thing. Had a Virginia electrical contractor done it, every execution would be reminiscent of the final scenes of “The Green Mile”.

        • The so-called carpetbaggers did a better job running Virginia than the predecessors of the Byrd Machine. One need only look at the 1870 state constitution vs the 1902 state constitution to see the difference. The 1870 constitution, called the Underwood Constitution, won popular approval by 210,585 to 9,136. The 1902 constitution, written by the plantation elite, was never put to a popular vote. The carpetbagger 1870 constitution created the public schools along with mandatory attendance. The 1902 FFV constitution mandated school segregation.

  14. Acbar. How am I quoting material I know is suspect? I read the author’s first book and found it a great read. She won a Pulitzer for it. I am into her second book and like it as well. I either know of the material used or have looked it up. I am not writing a freaking term paper here. It is a 20 minute blog post I do for free. If you are such a critic why don’t you write some. Is Wilkerson’s research suspect because she is a Black female? Think it over, Acbar.

    • She won a Pulitzer eh? Wow!

      REMINDER: WaPo, NYT Won Pulitzers For Russia Collusion Reporting

      • “She won a Pulitzer for it.”

        Reminds me of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.

      • And it’s nothing new, either.

        Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer in 1932 for his 1931 articles in the NYT defending (and downplaying) the brutality of Joseph Stalin and the bolsheviks in the USSR.

        Mr. Duranty’s subsequent reporting from the USSR on the 1932-33 famine in the Ukraine included such gems as “there is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be”.

        So, as far as I am concerned, a Pulitzer prize is less than worthless as far as judging the scholarship and integrity of journalism.

      • NY Gov got an Emmy for killing the most old people

    • “It is a 20 minute blog post I do for free.”

      I welcome your contributions, even if I don’t agree.

      And there is a potential benefit. If you ever want to know what the weaknesses of your arguments are before using them elsewhere, looks like publishing them here will tell you.

      It would, however, be helpful if you would learn how to reply to a specific post. Just saying.

    • Your go to excuse for not fact checking your source material is that you’re not writing a term paper. You’ve uttered this countless times, if you don’t want to check your work label is “opinion” and stop calling yourself a “journalist”.

  15. Matt adams. Actually, one major source regarding nazi interest in American systemic racism was a German who attended a law school in Arkansas. The author notes it. Have confirmed it. Speaking about work, do you have anything to back up your claims about California? Links? Anything? Or do I do the work and you get to be the critic? Why not get off your ass?

  16. Duranty was a huge mess. No question.

  17. Matt, this is opinion. I made that clear. Why don’t you understand. I thought I had tagged this as “Commentary.” Did it not show up?

    • I suggest putting “OPINON” in bold 20 font on the top from now on, because permalinks that are greyed out mean nothing.

      Beyond that opinion should be rooted in facts, otherwise you’re just presenting “misinformation” or ekk gads “fake news”.

  18. Why don’t you do the same?

    • I don’t write articles, I comment on them. If I were to write an article though, I would do it like a “term paper” as you say. There wasn’t a single paper in which I didn’t have to cite my sources and ensure that they were valid and accurate.

      So given the information that you’ve been provided will you acquiesce about the basis for Nazi eugenics?

      Edit: it’s assumed that my statements are “opinion” I don’t claim to be a journalist.

  19. Baconator with extra cheese

    I vote we paint George Floyd on the Rotunda at UVA and on the State Capital. Maybe paint “ACAB and F_CK 12” on the Dr. Governor mansion.
    No reason to hide it anymore… put it out there for all to see.
    Maybe we pay NAH LLC like a $100 million… sounds about right based on their going rate by the hour for statue removal.

  20. I must say reading this has been a hoot!

    Please Please keep this one going, boys and girls

    Wish we had something like this in Palm Beach County…

    • Where in Virginia is that?

      • not too far, only 900 miles south of Sandbridge…

        • Oh, OBX! 🙄 Well, same drive time.

          • Since I lived in Virginia 87 of my years, and have investments and family there, guess I am permitted to be interested in the politics…

            Don’t think JAB checks for residency for permission to participate. Also, mighty nice to lose that VA income tax and not have to shovel snow.

            Do miss the Tobacco Co. … hope it comes back … Pegasus is nice though

          • Well, we probably did meet in the old days, albeit you’ve a few years on me.

            Enjoy that sunshine, wear your mask, and sell what you have here in Va. Buy a cabin in NH for the summers.

            Tobacco Co. I ate there. Once.

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