St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has gone about the urgent business of putting its Confederate history in its proper place. When will Richmond do the same?
Nine days ago, the Vestry of the downtown Richmond church known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy” — Jefferson Davis was a member and Robert E. Lee attended services — announced that it would be removing all images of the Confederate battle flag within its walls.
The church’s announcement came five months after the Charleston, S.C., church massacre that left nine people dead sparked a national conversation on the appropriateness of Confederate flags in public places. Soon after, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church urged their churches nationwide to remove any Confederate battle flags. St. Paul’s Vestry directed the removal of the battle flag’s representations as soon as possible. The memorials that are removed from the church will be retained as part of a historical exhibit.
Perhaps more significant, the Vestry announced that the church will engage in “a deeper examination of St. Paul’s history, the role of race and slavery in that history, what that history means to us today, development of a regular litany of reconciliation, and creation of a memorial that appropriately honors the enslaved people of Richmond, especially the enslaved members of St. Paul’s.”
The Vestry views all this as “an exciting opportunity ... to revisit and update our narrative in a way that will have an impact well beyond our walls.”
Indeed, Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, should seize the opportunity to update its narrative by delving into the disparities that plague our community.
To say that Richmond has struggled to place its Confederate history in a proper context would be a gross overstatement, given how little we’ve tried. When it comes to creating memorials that appropriately honor the enslaved, we’ve hit a wall.
Worse than our mishandling of the past is our willful ignorance of how it has shaped Richmond today. There are good people immersed in that conversation — you know who you are — but by and large, we appear to lack the stomach for the messy work of sorting through the legacy of our painful, intertwined past.
Well, St. Paul’s — situated across from Capitol Square and a stone’s throw from City Hall — has provided us with a template.
The history of St. Paul’s extends far beyond Richmond’s leading citizens or those who fought for the Confederacy. As the church history points out, “Contrary to the conventions of the day, baptisms, marriages, and funerals were performed at St. Paul’s for both free and enslaved blacks.”
And on Jan. 13, 1990, St. Paul’s was the setting for the pre-inaugural prayer service for L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected African-American governor.
With minor editing, what St. Paul’s endeavors could be transformed into a regional mission statement. Richmond and environs needs to engage in a similar talk about the role of race and slavery in our past and present, influencing where we live, the quality of our education, our mobility, our ability to vote and our treatment by the criminal justice system.
The Rev. Benjamin Campbell, an ordained Episcopal priest and the author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” said he is proud of the conversation St. Paul’s is having.
“My own feeling is that the major artifacts of the Confederacy in Richmond, in fact, are not hanging on walls,” said Campbell, citing “a re-segregated and underfunded public school system” and “a completely absent regional public transportation system.”
“These are the kinds of artifacts — and I could give you many more, frankly — that continue to do damage at a deep, deep level,” he said. “Whereas it’s important to deal with the symbolic artifacts, it is most important to attack the continuing systemic injustice that the Confederacy perpetrated.”
It’s hard to see how we’ll go on the attack if we can’t engage a community-wide discussion of the meaning of Confederate symbols, and why Richmond, for the most part, continues to cling to them.
Just as St. Paul’s has vowed to develop a “regular litany of conversation,” the Richmond region must come up with a constructive engagement of its past beyond the usual gatherings of folks preaching to the choir. We need our own version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that acknowledges how our past informs our present.
The conversation about Confederate monuments has never merely been about moving them to a more appropriate venue, such as a museum, or providing them with proper historical context. It’s also about a community acknowledging, without equivocation, that those symbols largely embody what’s wrong with Richmond today.
It’s not possible for a city to distance itself from a discredited ideology while continuing to honor its adherents, prominently and unapologetically, in the public sphere. St. Paul’s has reached the logical conclusion that a symbol of the Confederacy represents an impediment to community. Richmond needs to undertake a deeper examination of what this history means to us today, and to build a path toward reconciliation.
As the St. Paul’s approach suggests, this can’t be the initiative of one individual leader — not that any politician is interested in getting out front on this issue. This conversation requires a broad spectrum of consensus-building to launch. Perhaps our churches are the best incubator for a regional conversation on past and present inequality.
St. Paul’s Vestry did not propose altering the church’s stained glass windows or removing or changing memorials that make reference to the Confederacy but don’t contain the battle flag. But it says the church “intends to present and interpret those memorials in a way that makes clear our commitment to racial reconciliation.”
Richmond, similarly, must present and interpret its memorials in a way that makes its sentiments clear. We must excavate symbols that call our commitment to racial equality into question, and act in ways that remove all doubt. Any discussion of our past must include regional prescriptions for current-day poverty, lack of mobility and educational inequity, among other issues.
St. Paul’s Episcopal is a quintessential Richmond institution, steeped in Confederate heritage. If it can do this, the city and region can.