Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission convened a large public meeting for the first time in months Thursday as it moves toward wrapping up its work at the end of the month.
About 80 people attended the meeting, held at the Richmond Main Library. The commission provided an update on its lengthy public engagement process and offered a variety of chances for attendees to have their say about the future of the Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue.
“We want to make it as constructive as possible,” said Christy Coleman, the commission’s co-chairwoman and the president of the American Civil War Center.
People were handed an electronic clicker when they arrived, which the commission used to poll attendees throughout the meeting on various questions. They also passed out notecards at points to allow for more detailed responses. Responses from each method will be incorporated into the commission’s final report, as will the insights from some 1,600 pieces of correspondence the commission has received since its inception.
Additionally, about 20 people weighed in during a public comment period at the end of the night.
“I fly my Confederate flag for love of my family; I don’t fly it for hate,” said Wendy Hayslett, a Hampton resident. “Don’t let them continue destroying my children’s Southern history.”
On the other side of the issue, proponents of removing or relocating the statues cast them as the embodiment of white supremacy or an obstacle to true reconciliation.
“These monuments as they exist now are nothing else but symbols of hate,” said Matthew Christison, a Church Hill resident. Before concluding his remarks, he added: “If you do not think these [monuments] need to be taken down immediately, you are a racist.”
Thursday’s meeting followed a 2½-month period in which the commission sent small groups of its members to hold “listening sessions” with religious, heritage and community organizations. The commission received nine requests in total, Coleman said. Four listening sessions that were open to the public were held.
For two other organizations without venues that could accommodate the public, Coleman said, the commission intentionally sent only two members to the listening sessions to “not violate open meeting laws.” An accounting of what transpired at each session will be posted on the commission’s website.
Commission members favored the small-group setting over the town hall-style forum they held in August, which “was a learning curve for everyone,” Coleman said Thursday. The August event saw more than 500 people show up. Tempers flared as organizers struggled to keep the dialogue civil and focused on the commission’s task of reinterpretation. Thursday’s meeting was calm by comparison.
Stoney formed the 10-person panel of academics, historians and members of the City Council and the community in July. He charged it with recommending how the city could “add context” to the statues lining Monument Avenue, an approach the mayor said at the time was preferable to removing or relocating the monuments.
After a woman was killed and dozens more were injured in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Stoney expanded the commission’s charge to include a consideration of removal or relocation of the statues.
The commission has a meeting scheduled for May 19 at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, 1000 Mosby St., from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. There will be opportunity for public comment at the meeting, which will follow the format of Thursday’s event.
Later that day, the commission will convene again for a work session from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Richmond City Hall, 900 E. Broad St., in the second-floor council chambers. No public comment period will be held that evening.
Of the latter work session that day, Coleman said it will provide a chance for the volunteer commission to talk through what they’ve learned in the past nine months.
“Truthfully, we as commission members have not had a chance to sit down together and digest,” she said.