Denouncing the “false narrative” of the Confederate monuments on Richmond’s Monument Avenue on Thursday, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proceeded to dish up his own stony narrative of our world-famous avenue while announcing a commission to write the correct one.
And by the way, he said, find some new monuments to bring balance and diversity to our National Historic Landmark District.
“It was written in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago — not only to distort history by lionizing the architects and defenders of slavery, but also to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and usher in a new era of white supremacy,” Stoney said of our monuments during Thursday’s news conference.
The monuments are all “part of the false narrative — the alternative facts, if you will — that we will begin to fact-check, starting today,” he said.
It was likely Stoney’s most passionate speech of his young career, and the finite delivery of a vague campaign promise.
It comes as other cities across the nation wrestle with the images and icons of the Civil War and what they say to us today.
He used some of the same language and concepts of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former President Barack Obama and a rather scathing narrative about the nation’s 1,503 public symbols of the Confederacy published last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
No doubt, the mayor’s personal narrative about Monument Avenue is partially rooted in fact. But it’s not the whole truth.
I believe his Monument Avenue Commission will find it. In my opinion, you could not find a better and more balanced group to tackle this monumental and important task. The historians and educators — along with some city leaders and legal experts — are expected to come up with plans for plaques and other ways to “contextualize” the monuments and those who created them by Nov. 1. There are two public hearings that will occur sometime in the next 90 days.
Yes, there’s certainly room on the avenue for some sweet new monuments.
And unlike New Orleans’ mayor, Stoney stated that he’s not asking to tear any monuments down, which would be political suicide and would also likely relaunch the Civil War.
But after the news conference — when asked about it by this paper’s Michael Paul Williams — Stoney left the door open for demolition, saying what he wants done now is a “first step.”
While the co-chair of the commission, Christy Coleman (CEO of the American Civil War Museum), struck a graceful, conciliatory tone and pledged they would work together to get this right, the mayor’s blunt comments indicated he felt certain that white supremacy and terror were the motives for the creation of the monuments. And he said he found all but one of them unworthy, if not detestable.
“I think we should consider what Monument Avenue would look like with a little more diversity,” Stoney said. “Right now, Arthur Ashe stands alone, and he is the only true champion on that street.”
Oh Lawd, why’d you have to go there? It’s hard to get folks to believe you’re going to be fair while slapping a good number of them right in the kisser.
And what about Matthew Fontaine Maury?
Yes, some might say Commodore Maury was a face of the Confederate Navy — the guy who helped devise deadly mines for southern waters. (Most of his wartime efforts were in Europe, trying to stop the war.)
But this Spotsylvania County native was mainly known as the “pathfinder of the seas,” the man who charted ocean currents and winds, a tireless researcher and author whose work in several fields before and after the war profoundly changed the world.
Yes, he was a scientific champion in every sense of the word. He’s buried here at Hollywood Cemetery, right beside presidents John Tyler and James Monroe.
And the person behind a monument for “the first and foremost oceanographer” wasn’t some Jim Crow crew in white sheets, but Mrs. Elvira Evelina Moffitt, a 78-year-old woman and historical activist from North Carolina (please read her bio online) who tirelessly raised the money for one of the world’s rare monuments to a heroic scientist. She lived just long enough to see it unveiled.
But it wasn’t her idea. According to old newspaper reports, the monument to Maury was originally suggested by Gaston Lichtenstein, a letter-writer to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It took 40 years to get it done.
Back in 1996, while the Arthur Ashe monument was being created, I plunged into the newspaper’s extensive archives to see how Richmond’s monuments like Maury’s — and the avenue around them — came to be.
“Choose a statue and start a fight,” a Richmond Times-Dispatch story reflected 70 years ago.
As I wrote then, “many of Richmond’s landmark statues took root only after long and sometimes bitter squabbling over design, location, cost and even the birthplace of the sculptors.”
On May 14, 1864, two days after J.E.B. Stuart died in a home downtown, the City Council voted that Richmond would “commemorate by a suitable monument its gratitude for his services,” according to a T-D news report at the time.
The monument was unveiled 43 years later.
Robert E. Lee’s took only half that time, and included a campaign by the city’s black newspaper, the Richmond Planet, to brand the effort as treason.
It’s fascinating and, yes, ugly stuff. But it’s not like Richmond is new to analyzing — and agonizing over — its monumental past.
An article in the May issue of Smithsonian magazine — “What Richmond Has Gotten Right About Interpreting Its Confederate History” — noted our city has done a good job of erecting other monuments that “acknowledge its dark past, using its public spaces to highlight history that reflects and inspires the entire community.”
Friends, there were wonderful parts in Stoney’s speech, like how he said we will build new monuments like schools and better housing developments to elevate all Richmonders.
I just wish the mayor had introduced this complex and controversial effort to correct the “false narrative” with more grace instead of a stony and blanket condemnation of the many people who helped make Monument Avenue one of the most architecturally acclaimed streets in the world.
And please, as I begged recently in a TV column, why not an equally esteemed commission to do a forensic study of the perpetrators and victims of Richmond’s latest crime wave so we know where they come from, how they live and how they collide (something we did back in the ’90s) so we can better understand how to stop it?
That’s a monumental task that will save lives now.
*This article has been updated to include the correct president by which Maury is buried: James Monroe.