National Slave Memorial may help ‘contextualize’ Confederate statues

11/10/2017, 7:44 p.m.

The push to dismantle Confederate statues became a simmering crucible in the Virginia gubernatorial race. This is no surprise as the state had an outsized role in the Civil War and the subsequent century-long American apartheid from 1865 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

However, the divisiveness of this binary code — remove/do not remove — is not an immutable destiny. There is, at least in Virginia, a viable alternative. The United States is long overdue in creating a National Slave Memorial. A proposal for a shrine has been languishing in Congress since 2003.  Should legislators ever advance the idea, trending logic tends to put it on the Mall in Washington, D.C. 

That would be a mistake. 

Just as Germany’s Holocaust Memorial is in Berlin, so must America’s recognition of its own chapter of racist fanaticism be placed in the city that waged a war devoted to its perpetuation. The National Slave Memorial must be in the former capital of the Confederacy — Richmond. 

This presents a unique opportunity to both sides of the argument surrounding Confederate statues. Richmond is the only locality where adding, instead of erasing — so-called “contextualizing” — can be made to work. It’s an unwieldy concept for the hundreds of towns and cities where 1,500 Confederate statues disgrace courthouse entryways and public squares. But if city and state legislators secure federal support, this option could result in historic compromise that fosters healing. 

Richmond’s Monument Avenue is a majestic stretch of public parkway composed of old world cobblestone and verdant median that’s comparable to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Regrettably, it also houses deification of southerners who fought to destroy the United States, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. While 2 miles of the avenue received landmark status in 1970, that’s not a shield of invulnerability against removal. But instead of dismantling the monuments, the addition of a National Slave Memorial could justify their preservation by rendering them components within a wider historical context. The idea is to turn this remarkable stretch into an outdoor museum of American self-examination.      

Should it happen, the Confederate gasconades could then convey an aesthetic meaning precisely opposite their original intent. They were erected between 1890 and 1919 as grand equestrian symbols designed to project one self-evident purpose — militant celebration of segregation. Once modified, instead of racist defiance, their wider meaning would be transformed into defiance of racism. If handled properly, the metaphor of this future 2-mile long slave memorial would end this long-lived vestige of institutional bigotry. 

Such a project will require tenacious commitment and bravery from many in Washington and Richmond. Once initiated, it must be done in a manner commensurate with its great purpose. Make it big. Create all necessary space. Spend real money. Hire qualified artists. Then construct a National Slave Memorial allowing visitors to experience history at an emotional level, as they now do, by walking into, and out of, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany.

For anyone familiar with the consumptive harm of racial inequality, or who otherwise possesses an honest grasp of history, this would be a great symbol of recognition and apology. It also would be a message that humble honesty can still exist in the face of conspicuous dishonesty, presently having its day in Washington.

And it truly can happen. As the great French writer Victor Hugo said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” He was right. Demonstrating to future generations that Americans in the early 21st century finally came to understand the hateful symbolism of these monuments is an idea whose time has come, regardless of who becomes the next governor of Virginia.


New York

The writer is a Richmond native and novelist who lives in New York. Several groups have been working on a slave memorial in Shockoe Bottom near the Lumpkin’s Jail site.