The real context behind Monument Avenue

8/4/2017, 9:55 a.m.
The Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality issued the following open letter to members of the Monument Avenue Commission:

Other U.S. cities understand this: New Orleans, Orlando, Tampa, St. Louis and Charlottesville all have taken down or are in the process of taking down their Confederate statues. Other cities are renaming streets, parks and buildings. But not Richmond. Richmond wants to add “context.”

What is most revealing is how Richmond deals with its brief, three-and-a-half-year Confederate past as opposed to its three decades as the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade. It took a nearly 10-year community struggle to force the state of Virginia to remove a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot from the city’s African Burial Ground. It took a bitter two-year community campaign to stop former Mayor Dwight C. Jones and the powerful business coalition Venture Richmond from building a baseball stadium in the heart of the Shockoe Bottom slave-trading district. (Former Mayor Jones also is on record as opposing taking down the statues.) That fight forced former Mayor Jones to begin a project to memorialize just one of nearly 100 slavery-related sites in the Bottom, but Mayor Stoney is resisting the overwhelming community demand for a more inclusive — and less expensive — 9-acre Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park.

The most disturbing thing about the way the city is handling these related issues is its utter insensitivity to the black community. What kind of compromise can be reached between those who still honor the men who defended slavery and the descendants of those who were enslaved? Do you really think that some signage will make it less painful for the descendants to walk, cycle or drive past those tributes to the men who fought for the right to keep their ancestors enslaved? Whose sensitivities matter more here? Whose matter at all?

The mission of the Monument Avenue Commission as it now exists is unacceptable. It begins with a decision to compromise on the question of what to do about the Confederate-honoring, Lost Cause mythology-promoting statues on the avenue before any public meetings have taken place. The mayor has said that taking the statues down is off the table. Not one of the commission’s 10 members has publicly called for their removal. Several previously supported the effort to put a stadium in the Bottom. And the commission is preparing to shepherd a discussion about Monument Avenue while apparently ignoring the parallel issue of Shockoe Bottom.

Therefore, we are calling on the members of the commission to do the following before their first public hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 9:

• Publicly declare that taking down the statues is one of the options to be considered.

• Invite onto the commission Richmonders who already have called for the statues to be removed.

• Invite New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to speak at the first public hearing. His eloquent statement on why his city has taken down its Confederate monuments has become a classic argument for their removal.

Ana Edwards is chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. Phil Wilayto is editor of The Virginia Defender.