Richmond’s ‘devaluing of black history’
12/28/2018, 6 a.m.
Mayor Levar M. Stoney recently posted on Twitter that he was “pleased” to receive a petition seeking to rename the Boulevard after Arthur Ashe Jr., the accomplished black tennis player and Richmonder. He shared this endorsement as a photo of a proposal written by a Columbia University student and the author is correct: There is no better time than the present to introduce black figures into post-Confederate spaces. Despite rich legacies from both, Richmond has had a contentious relationship between its black history and its Confederate history. And today, it still goes unreconciled.
While a great deal of Richmond area history is derived from the Civil War and Reconstruction, its black history is equally monumental — from the establishment of Virginia Union University by the slave wife of Robert Lumpkin, to Richmond’s integration of black students into all-white Chandler Junior High School, to extensive development made by some of Virginia’s first black architects, largely in Jackson Ward.
What’s disappointing is that, despite the abundance of black history, for most Richmonders, this historical awareness is almost entirely optional. Historically black neighborhoods go largely unacknowledged, and what monuments to black history that exist actually exist in areas obscured from the average citizen’s eye.
On the iconic and highly traveled Monument Avenue, only one of the statues is of a black person — that of Mr. Ashe, which was placed 22 years ago. The others, most of which were placed more than 100 years ago, are of Confederate war generals.
Even at an educational level, we seem to eschew black history. Richmond’s tribute to Maggie Lena Walker, the first woman to charter a bank in the United States, now comes in the form of an exclusive public high school. Once a haven for black students, Maggie L. Walker High School was shut down for many years before being expropriated and turned into a regional Governor’s School in 2001 that is now majority white.
This is no small issue. It’s representative of a broader problem, that of a systemic devaluing of black history. It affects all Richmonders, both white and black. Black history is not taught in public schools beyond obligatory February touchpoints, and residents aren’t shown the history of black Richmond in their respective spaces. At the crux of the issue of Confederate memorabilia in Richmond, in an area with such rich Confederate and black history, why is it that the history of white Richmond be the only thing heralded as late as 2018?
I have witnessed how the protection of Confederate figures has roused my white peers into racism against black students and how the presence of such statues has maintained the ideology of white supremacy. I see how the diminutive regard of black history emboldens white supremacists to organize in Richmond and elsewhere, including in Charlottesville, where a young woman was killed during a white supremacist rally in August 2017. I also see the profound psychological effects on my black peers being told their history doesn’t matter. I have witnessed them quit sports teams and transfer classes because of harassment from pro-Confederate classmates who knew little about the South other than the legacy of the Confederacy.
Though we can critique Richmond’s numerous statues of Confederate war heroes, we can’t do this without acknowledging that most of these tributes run through an area entirely segregated from black Richmond, i.e., Monument Avenue, with houses ranging in value from $500,000 to $3 million. Even real estate valuation feeds into the mindset that Confederate history is the only important history of the Richmond.
At any rate, if we were to rename the Boulevard, the question of access and visibility to the nearby black community is still up in the air.
While Mayor Stoney has an obligation to commit to the amelioration of systemic oppression in Richmond, i.e. statues, education, legislation, black Richmond has an obligation to commit to advocacy. This advocacy requires being vocal and visible, not just in gentrified spaces or through legal or political channels, but spaces that are seemingly reserved for white, moneyed positions. We must show our faces in Short Pump, Stony Point and the like and don’t let ourselves be silenced.
New York City
The writer is a Hanover County native who is studying for her undergraduate degree at Columbia University.