Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission has recommended the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue from Monument Avenue and the addition of signage to the sites of the street’s four other statues honoring the Confederacy, according to the panel’s final report.
After gathering public input for 11 months, the 10-person commission recommended reinterpreting four of the statues with permanent signage in the short term and the creation of a museum exhibit, mobile app and video to convey the history of the monuments and what they stand for. The report was released Monday.
The commission singled out Davis for removal if pending legal challenges are resolved and a state law on war memorials is amended.
“A holistic narrative acknowledges the emotional realities the Monument Avenue statues represent,” the report says. Of the Davis monument, the commissioners wrote: “Of all the statues, this one is the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment.”
State law limits local governments’ power to remove or modify war memorials, and some localities have concluded that the law flatly prohibits taking down Confederate statues. The city of Charlottesville — the site of last summer’s violent white nationalist rally held in defense of Confederate statues — is facing a lawsuit over its push to remove monuments of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from two downtown parks.
The Charlottesville rally inspired state legislation that would empower localities to make their own decisions on the fate of Confederate statues. Gov. Ralph Northam and other prominent Democrats have said they support letting localities remove statues, but lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly rejected the bills earlier this year.
In an interview Monday, Stoney said his administration will review the commission’s recommendations and determine how much implementing them would cost. He said he did not have a timetable for conducting that review or determining the next steps.
“I do believe the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission are actionable and something that can serve as a foundation for reconciliation or healing here in the city,” Stoney said.
The 115-page report took into account 1,800 pieces of correspondence sent to the commission since last summer, as well as feedback from 1,200 people who attended one or more of the commission’s meetings.
In addition to reinterpretation via signage, the commission recommended installing additional monuments on the street. Specifically, it proposes a memorial to the United States Colored Troops, a regiment made primarily of formerly enslaved men that fought alongside Union soldiers and earned recognition for bravery at the Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico County.
Stoney said adding statues that represent “another side of history” is the “most pressing” recommendation in the report.
“I think adding new statues, whether it’s the U.S. Colored Troops or Oliver Hill or Doug Wilder, would be an advancement for the city of Richmond,” Stoney said.
The report comes about a year after Stoney formed the commission and 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 of Lee, Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, who were Confederate generals; Davis, who was president of the Confederacy; and Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury.
The commission held its first forum in August. More than 500 people attended, and many others were turned away. The meeting was tense and tempers flared as organizers struggled to keep the dialogue civil and focused on the commission’s task of reinterpretation.
Then Charlottesville happened.
After Heather Heyer was killed and dozens of others were injured in the aftermath of the Aug. 12 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Stoney expanded the commission’s charge to include consideration of removal or relocation of the Monument Avenue statues. The mayor also canceled a September forum that the commission had scheduled, citing safety concerns.
When the commission reconvened in November, its members decided to gather more input in small-group meetings through spring. The panel held six “listening sessions” with religious, heritage and community organizations from February to April. Four of the sessions were open to the public; two were not.
The commission returned to the large-meeting format in May, when it held two forums that were open to the public. The group’s final report was due to Stoney at the end of May, but the mayor granted the commission a one-month extension.
Beyond the commission, there have been other efforts locally to reckon with the city’s Confederate iconography and symbols.
Richmond City Council member Michael Jones proposed a charter change that would give the council the authority to remove the statues. The council voted it down in December.
Jones said he would reintroduce the measure after Stoney’s commission wrapped up its work. The mayor said he would support Jones’ effort if he proposes the charter change again.
More recently, the Richmond School Board renamed J.E.B. Stuart Elementary school to Barack Obama Elementary last month.
Elsewhere, the Alexandria City Council late last month voted to strip Davis’ name from a portion of U.S. Route 1 that runs through the Northern Virginia city.
Stoney said Monday that he had no immediate plans to review other vestiges of the Confederacy in the city.
“Moving forward, we may consider changing names of roads and bridges — the Robert E. Lee Bridge or Jefferson Davis Highway. Those may be up for discussion in the future,” he said. “But right now, I’m focused on Monument Avenue. Let’s not take our eye off the ball. Let’s finish the job.”