The Systemic Racism of Monument Avenue

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond’s grand Monument Avenue, a double lane, tree lined thoroughfare, has been the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter campaign that has focused on the statues of several Confederate figures one the road, including Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

All are up for removal, but the same foot-dragging that has for years protected the statues that some consider racist is at work today. Protestors have torn down Davis and have defaced the rest. On Sunday night, they nearly ripped down the Stuart statue as two city council members urged that it be removed on an emergency basis.

Lee’s statue has been ordered down by Gov. Ralph Northam, but the effort has been tied up in lawsuits by several property owners. One claims either that the original deed that gave the state the site for Lee included language that it could not be removed. Other plaintiffs, most anonymous,  claim that removing the statues would hurt their property values and their special tax status.

If anything smacks of white privilege and entitlement, this is it. But for more perspective, this article in The Atlantic neatly sums up the history behind the statues and the Avenue, noting that the issue has everything to do with rewriting Richmond’s history and making a marketing play to sell expensive and exclusive real estate decades after the Confederacy was suppressed.

After the war ended, African-American Richmonders were given a chance to help run the city and did so successfully for years. Then, white supremacists surfaced again and history was again rewritten. Restrictive covenants were introduced to prevent African-Americans from owning property along Monument Avenue. African-Americans were frightened to even be seen walking along the boulevard.

In this remarkable article, Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War historian who lives in Boston, writes that:

“On May 29, 1890, roughly 150,000 people gathered for the dedication of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. It was an opportunity to celebrate a man who many believed embodied the virtues of the old South, the “Christian Warrior” who bravely fought to the bitter end for the Confederacy’s Lost Cause. The Richmond industrialist and former Confederate staff officer Archer Anderson predicted that the monument would continue to teach “generations yet unborn,” and that it would “stand as the embodiment of a brave and virtuous people’s ideal leader!”

Levin notes that Richmond had become a leading center of the “New South” in which local businessmen made deals with rich Northern industrialists. Lots of money was flowing

He writes:

“By the turn of the 20th century, civic leaders in Richmond and elsewhere embraced the economic vision of a “new South” led, according to the historian Reiko Hillyer, by a “rising class of businessmen and industrialists who owed their growing economic power to alliances with northern business interests” and who “sought to promote an era of national reconciliation and a climate favorable to business and industrial expansion.” These men—bank presidents, manufacturers, lawyers, and real-estate developers—purchased lots and built impressive homes along Monument Avenue.”

The Civil War monuments were as much a real estate marketing ploy as they were authentic expressions of grief for defeated and dead Confederates. Of course, African-Americans had to be kept out during this period which resulted in the first Jim Crow laws:

Levin notes:

“Real-estate companies also reassured potential buyers through restrictive covenants that “no lots can ever be sold or rented in MONUMENT AVENUE PARK to any person of African descent.” This was a reassuring message for white Richmonders during a time of unrest and uncertainty. Business and civic leaders worried about labor activism among the city’s black tobacco workers and elsewhere during this period of industrial expansion. Many still recalled with horror the brief but consequential period from 1879 to 1883, in which a biracial party known as the Readjusters controlled the wheels of government throughout the city and state. Large numbers of black Virginians voted, attended public schools, and were elected to local and state positions, all under the leadership of the former Confederate general William Mahone.”

It didn’t stop there:

“In addition to private restrictive covenants that ensured only white families would reside in the shadows of Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Maury, and Davis, the city of Richmond passed a number of discriminatory ordinances, including one in 1911 that restricted African American residents to those city blocks in which they already constituted a majority. In 1929, the city passed another ordinance that, relying on Virginia’s newly adopted “racial-integrity law,” prohibited a person from living in a neighborhood where he or she was prevented from marrying any member of the majority population.

“These restrictions all but guaranteed that most of the neighborhood around Monument Avenue would remain exclusively white for decades, and it also brought into sharp focus the racial and political inequities for black Richmonders. “I cannot go on Monument Ave.,” Robert Leon Bacon wrote to the governor of Virginia in 1955, “and visit a white girl for fear of being ‘lynched’ or beaten up or arrested or electrocuted.” Bacon called for “colored people to rise up and demand our rights and first class privileges, as citizens should always have.”

Such systemic racism prevailed into the 1950s and 1960s when Virginia’s white leadership proclaimed a policy of “Massive Resistance” to school integration. Other racist laws were finally struck down by the courts and federal government in the 1960s.

This is the backdrop of the current controversy that clouds Monument Avenue.

It is amazing that as police confront protestors, arrest them, gas them and shoot them with rubber bullets, some residents of the Avenue can file lawsuits and remain anonymous. Only two have shown enough guts the have their names listed as plaintiffs.

It is yet another “kick the can” down the road delaying tactic that has worked so well for decades. This time, however, protestors are having none of it.

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27 responses to “The Systemic Racism of Monument Avenue

  1. I agree with your analysis of the motives behind Monument Ave. But, I am getting impatient with the protestors. They have won, but they now seem to want to tear something down just for the hell of it. The other night, they tore town a statue commemorating a Virginia military unit. It turns out that unit was a militia formed in 1754, before the Revolutionary War.

    It will be legal to take down the Confederate monuments on July 1. City Council has made it clear that they will be removed. But, the protestors don’t want to wait; they want to have the thrill, the dramatic effect of toppling them. So, they try to pull down the Stuart statue. Don’t they know what happened in Portsmouth, with a much smaller statue? Somebody was seriously injured. What were the police supposed to do? Stand by and hope that nobody got hurt?

    • Dick – perhaps the rioting, looting, killings, assaults and thievery going on right now all over the country have something to do with the problems you fairly raise. The police problem is real, but it’s hardly the biggest problem, but instead a reaction to it.

    • A tax deferred is a tax not paid. Justice delayed is justice denied.
      Everyone likes one, while some definitely hate the other.

  2. Dick, There is no question that people could get hurt if statues are torn down by a crowd. My guess is that the demonstrators do not want any delay, which has been Virginia’s approach for a long time. We have the absurd Dillon Rule. The Byrd Organization ran things top down like a police state. Any move to change things gets delayed and studied to death until it is forgotten.
    This is why, in my opinion, that Ralph Northam is made into such a whipping boy by the right-wingers on this blog. He actually is changing things and they are terrified.

  3. I have no problem if people want to remove Confederate monuments. But if there’s systematic racism in Richmond (or fill in the blank), why hasn’t it been fixed? As I recall, our history-challenged junior senator was mayor of Richmond for a number of years. Why didn’t Tim Kaine fix this stuff?

    As far as the Dillon Rule is concerned, there was a proposal to remove it or weaken it when the Constitution was last rewritten. However, organizations representing Virginia’s cities and counties (and the larger ones themselves) lobbied the convention to leave the Dillon Rule alone. My source the late, long-time Delegate and member of the Constitution rewrite group, Vincent Callahan. But blame the Dillon Rule on – how about Donald Trump. Or maybe Richard Nixon.

    • First, Tim Kaine was not an elected mayor. He served on the city council when the mayor was appointed by the council from its membership. Being mayor was mostly a ceremonial post. Second, it takes a long time and more than one person to reverse any systemic aspect of an entire culture. The Kaines have done a great deal to bring deal of decency and racial understanding to Richmond.

  4. Peter has written a good article here. He tells the story of the Richmond chapter of the grand conciliation put together by the Democratic Party to regain for itself national power, starting with the Virginia born presidential icon Woodrow Wilson. History is always ugly, very few of us rise above that sordid fact.

  5. Reed, thanks for the compliment but the writing is Levin’s not mine.

    • Let us recognize again the wisdom of Lee, who warned often that glorifying “the cause” would prove a mistake. At this point, the statues are irrelevant and the real story is the anarchy and chaos reigning around the city, the mob tolerated and egged on by those who seek to gain politically. Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind I expect….

      The A.P. Hill statue and tomb in Northside was very much a real estate developer’s ploy to attract buyers out to what was then the suburbs….They had to dig the old boy up from Hollywood Cemetery, and there the bones should return. Tearing down the First Virginia statue in the Fan, which I walked by hundreds of times while living and working on Stuart Circle, along with the attack on Grant’s bust out in San Francisco, proves the mob is just the mob, and the claim that any and all American history is being spat upon gains credence.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        It is my understanding that General A.P. Hill is buried under the monument standing up. Could be one those legends but maybe not. A.P. Hill’s name was called out by Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee on their death beds. General Hill needs to fight a rear guard action to a new location. I think Cedar Mountain Battlefield would be perfect. Culpeper was his native land and Cedar Mountain was the first of many times when General Hill saved the hour. I cannot figure out who owns the monument and land. The other confederate monuments are listed on Richmond’s GIS site but not General Hill. Here is an old RTD article from the dedication of the Hill Monument.

        • Back to Hollywood Cemetery, where so many he served with (and a few he served against) rest as well. As with T.J. Jackson, we’ll never know what his actions and contributions might have been upon surrender and reunification. It is clear that to The Mob nothing was sufficient for redemption in their eyes. They view the Lockett’s and the Wickham’s as the same as the others who were deeply “unreconstructed”, like N.B. Forrest.

          • James Wyatt Whitehead V

            Mr. Haner are modern Virginians really any different than the Virginians who chose secession? In 2018, there were about 16,000 abortions in this state. 6,627 of those abortions were black. I believe Virginia had restrictive laws on this back then. What is the difference between the sin of slavery from 155 years ago and the sin of abortion in the present? If we are still struggling to wash away the sin of slavery how on earth can we wash away the sin of abortion?

          • Reed Fawell 3rd

            Earlier, I said:

            “Peter has written a good article here. He tells the story of the Richmond chapter of the grand conciliation put together by the Democratic Party to regain for itself national power, starting with the Virginia born presidential icon Woodrow Wilson. History is always ugly, very few of us rise above that sordid fact.”

            I consider what is happening today to be a mirror image of what happened under Jim Crow. Back then, say roughly between 1900 through the 1930s, the Democratic Party jumped aboard the Jim Crow train to reunite the south, ie. the white southern segregationist Vote behind the Democratic banner at the expense of black people.

            Woodrow Wilson and Byrd machine represented this movement run solely for the benefit of the elite, aggregating their power, money, votes, and political and economic control at the expense of poor whites and blacks.

            I believe that today the same thing his happening, as the Democratic Party believes that it cannot maintain national and local power without a overwhelming, monolithic black vote.

            Hence, the Democratic Party today will do anything to incite, and ignite that black vote, including tearing the country down if need be, as is now happening. And, like the Jim Crow Movement, the biggest losers will be poor blacks, poor whites, and now Hispanics as well. Ironically, there will be no winners, except for a very few leftist demagogues.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Mr. Peter do you ever tire of beating down Confederate history? For years now you have waged a full scale journalistic assault on monuments, history, and figures of the old Confederacy. My counter attack has been to craft homemade monuments and place them in hidden locations on America’s Civil War battlefields. I think I am up to 42 monuments now. Good thing I just retired. Looks like I am going to be very busy. Here is an example of one that I placed in Roanoke Cemetery. It marks the location Captain Philip Lockett. By the way Captain Lockett defended freed slaves free of charge down in the courthouse of Mecklenburg County. He was a Republican who registered thousands of freed slaves to vote for the first time. This hero of Gettysburg also died poor in a pauper’s grave unmarked. I corrected that. Let me know what you think of my skill as a monument maker.

    • Wow! Born at Aaron’s Creek! That is where I grew up. I don’t remember any Locketts, but that is probably because it seems, from the biography, the Locketts moved to Mecklenburg County.

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        It’s a small world after all Mr. Dick. The Lockett place is right next to Mr. Al Vaughn’s crop dusting air strip on Highway 58. I found the Lockett cemetery that was lost in a planted pine forest now. Row and after row of field stones. According to Harwood Lockett’s autobiography black and white were buried together and side by side.

  7. Jim sherlock. You may well be right on the evictions. I don’t much about the issue. But as far as Constitutionality, I would try to argue that these are dangerous emergencies and need fast decisions. An enlightened GA might take up a better approach when they meet.

    • “Dangerous emergencies need fast decisions”. I would agree that some decisions need to be made fast, but that those were made by early April. Since then, most have been made with deliberation and consultation, just not with the General Assembly.

  8. Funny thing here in Easton, MD. There is a monument to “The Talbot Boys” in front of the courthouse. The base lists 89 men who came from Talbot County and fought for the Confederacy. The statue on top is of a boy carrying a Confederate flag. Very controversial. To somewhat balance the ledger a statue of native son Frederick Douglass was erected across the pathway from The Talbot Boys.

    However, there’s just one problem. Well, perhaps several problems. The statue of “The Talbot Boys” was erected in 1913. 58 years after the end of the Civil War. And … for every one Talbot County resident who fought for the Confederacy two fought for the Union. There is no memorial to the Union soldiers from Talbot County.

    The eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia has a long and shameful history of segregation, Jim Crow and lynchings. The statue of The Talbot Boys wan’t a marker for the capstone of the Civil War it was the signal of the start of Jim Crow.

    • The interest in putting up such monuments was simply weaker on the Union side. No idea why. I visited the statehouse in Springfield, Ill. and there is only a small sign marking where Grant had an office early in the war, and very little else about the Late Unpleasantness…..

      • James Wyatt Whitehead V

        The Federals often placed markers at the battlegrounds and the nearby federal military cemeteries established shortly after the war. So Illinois monuments are found at places such as Vicksburg, Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Kennesaw Mountain. Sometimes state money was used. Most of the time the survivors of the regiments financed the stone sentinels. This was is on Snodgrass Hill, Chickamauga, where “The Rock” George Thomas saved Rosencran’s army from destruction.

        • Thank you, James, for helping so much to preserve history and memory and culture for future generations that they may be far wiser and empowered that ours.

  9. What I know. If I drive into a Southern town and see a statue of a named white guy in 19th century clothing then I know he was a slaveowner who killed 1000s of his countrymen to perpetuate that ownership.

    If he is in early 20th century garb then he was either a member of the KKK, a segregationist, or responsible for legislation that suppressed the black and/or women’s votes… or both.

  10. Mr. Whitehead. I have lived off and on in the South since I was 18 months old. The place fascinates me. I am especially interested in learning what happened and how mythology has portrayed it.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Mr. Peter I share your fascination of the South. What continues to draw my interest is how a southern society was always in conflict with itself yet it coexisted. I used my teacher retirement bonus check, a whopping $1,500 for 27 years of work, to put up a memorial to my 3rd great grand aunt, Myrta Lockett Avary. Nice sign with a picture and brief biography. Going up on private property near her birthplace in Halifax County She was Captain Lockett’s sister. Myrta is the kind of southerner that should be remembered. A fearless, tragic, and important literary figure. A progressive too Mr. Peter!

  11. Civil War tourism has always been a solid contributor to the Richmond area’s economic development program. I fear that the recent unpleasantness may have a deeply negative impact on that revenue stream. Interest in the Civil War cannot help but be stigmatized in the current environment of historical nihilism.

    Perhaps new tours of graffiti-covered statues will replace the traditional stops through Richmond; perhaps the Slave Trail will replace the Civil War trails and their familiar signage.

    For me, it will be a sad by-product of the protests. Those guiding Civil War and Southern landmarks here and elsewhere have made great progress in telling a more complete, honest and inclusive story of the past in their offerings. Fewer people attending will mean fewer being educated.

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