Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney on Monday reiterated his belief that adding context to the Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue is preferable to removing or relocating them.
“Currently, as I’ve always said, since my remarks earlier on this year, the way those statues stand currently, they’re a shameful representation of the past that we all disagree with,” Stoney said. “For me, it’s about telling the complete truth. I don’t think removal of symbols does anything for telling the actual truth or changes the state and culture of racism in this country today.”
The mayor, who also called the monuments “very offensive” to him, made the remarks after attending a groundbreaking ceremony for the American Civil War Museum’s new facility on Tredegar Street.
His comments come after a scheduled white nationalist rally Saturday in Charlottesville ended in violence and death.
What transpired in Charlottesville has led other mayors to hasten efforts to remove Confederate monuments.
In Baltimore on Monday, Mayor Catherine Pugh pledged to tear down four such statues and said she has contacted two contractors about removing them. Pugh wants to move the monuments, but in a 15-0 vote Monday, the Baltimore City Council endorsed a resolution to destroy the statues.
The mayor of Lexington, Ky., Jim Gray, said Saturday that he will pursue removing two Confederate statues from the grounds of the former Fayette County Courthouse in Lexington.
Stoney announced his Monument Avenue Commission in June. He tapped 10 community leaders, historians and academics to make recommendations for adding context to the statues of Civil War generals Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, president of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis and Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury.
His announcement of the commission came as politicians in Charlottesville and New Orleans pursued removing statues of Confederate leaders.
Asked Monday whether he would amend the mission of the commission in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, Stoney said he would not.
“The mission of the Monument Avenue Commission remains the same,” Stoney said. “And that is to provide context and interpretation to the statues that currently stand down on Monument Avenue.”
Carrying out the mayor’s charge, regardless of what happened in Charlottesville, is important, said Edward Ayers, a historian, commission member and former president of the University of Richmond.
“Having a sense of direction, of what we would want to do, no matter what else happens, people need to understand where these monuments came from, who put them there and for what purpose,” Ayers said. “I think whatever else happens, we’re doing the right thing for right now.”
Commission members polled Monday said they were shocked by the violence that unfolded over the weekend. Two — Kim Gray and Sarah Driggs — suggested taking a step back.
“I think it’s time to press pause and we resume conversations around monuments when we can assure people’s personal safety won’t be at stake,” said Gray, whose Richmond City Council district includes the section of Monument Avenue where the Confederate statues stand.
Driggs, an author and member of the commission, said the events in Charlottesville left her “heartbroken and enraged.” The violence, she said, “confirmed the true power of symbols and the true meaning of symbols to those who committed these crimes.”
“I think this is a conversation that needs to happen, but things may be too inflamed right now to get anywhere, and we have to figure out the process by which we can discuss this more calmly than happened in Charlottesville,” Driggs said.
The commission held its first public hearing last week. About 500 people attended, and more were turned away at the door.
The two-hour event saw more than 40 speakers weigh in on what — or whether — context should be added to the monuments, but was marked by discord as some speakers were heckled by audience members and others sought to give speeches instead of share ideas, as organizers intended.
Gregg Kimball, co-chair of the commission and director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia, said the commission needs to convene and evaluate its process so the next hearing generates “a dialogue, not a shouting match.”
“Maybe we need to do something different so it isn’t just as oppositional as it has been,” Kimball said. “As we saw at the meeting last week, both removal and not doing anything are both going to be there. They’re the elephant in the room, so to speak.”
The commission’s next public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.