Who should be on Monument Avenue?

Ronald E. Carrington | 6/25/2020, 6 p.m.
Who should go on the pedestals along Monument Avenue once the Confederate statues are removed?

Who should go on the pedestals along Monument Avenue once the Confederate statues are removed?

The answers, offered recently by Richmonders, range from local legal icons in the 20th century struggle for civil rights to men and women of color who have contributed to the community, to reserving the space for fountains, reflection and conversations.

Legals scholars and practitioners Oliver W. Hill Sr. and Spottswood W. Robinson III, who laid the foundation for the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 ending the racially discriminatory doctrine of “separate but equal,” should be honored on Monument Avenue, according to a proposal by the Oliver Hill Sr. Foundation.

J. Maurice Hopkins, president of the foundation, said he has been advocating for more than five years to have a statue of Mr. Hill replace the one of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Gov. Ralph S. Northam announced June 4 that the 12-ton statue of Lee, which is owned by the state and has long been a symbol of white supremacy and division, will be removed.

Similarly, Mayor Levar M. Stoney and the unanimous members of City Council have said they will start the process on July 1 to remove the four other city-owned statues honoring Confederates on Monument Avenue.

Plans for their removal are advancing despite lawsuits and a Richmond judge’s injunction blocking it for now.

Mr. Hopkins said he has submitted the foun- dation’s proposal to Gov. Northam and Lt. Gov. Justin E. Fairfax for consideration.

“Having Mr. Hill’s statue in that location is very appropriate because the social justice aspect of his life is ideal for Virginia,” Mr. Hopkins said.

“It would also be appropriate to include Spottswood Robinson because he is a part of Mr. Hill’s legacy,” he added.

Others, including a Richmond historian and families with long and deep ties in the com- munity, want to see African-Americans replace the current statues that glorify slavery and the oppression of Black people.

Dr. Lauranett L. Lee, a public historian and visiting lecturer at the University of Richmond, was a member of the mayor’s Monument Avenue Commission that recommended in July 2018 that the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis be removed from Monument Avenue and contextual signs be added to the rest.

Protesters pulled down the statue of Jefferson Davis on June 10.

“Why do we have to have just men?” Dr. Lee asked when queried about whose statue should replace the Confederates.

She said although she understands what the statues mean to African-Americans, she is am- bivalent about their removal because “I know what it feels like to have your history erased, denigrated or removed,” the historian says. “I would not wish that on anyone.”

However, she named a variety of women from Richmond and Virginia that could replace the Confederate monuments, including Virginia Estelle Randolph, a brilliant educator whose system of upgraded vocational education was replicated across the country and parts of Africa. A school in Henrico County is named for her.

Dr. Lee also suggested Mary Peake, who was born in Norfolk in 1823. Ms. Peake was a dedicated educator and creator of a school un- der the Emancipation Oak located on Hampton University’s campus that began in September 1861 for African-American adults to attend in the evenings.

“Women are very underrepresented in the public space,” Dr. Lee said. “There are a number of women who have done tremendous work to advance, not only African-Americans, but Virginia history.”

She also suggested statues of crusading journalists be placed on Monument Avenue – John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, and Raymond H. Boone Sr., the late founder and publisher of the Richmond Free Press.

“They were journalists who got news out to Black people that otherwise wouldn’t be published,” Dr. Lee said.

Carmen Foster, a Richmond historian and leadership coach, asked why statues of people need to be erected on those spaces. She believes they should become a public space containing a healing, peaceful sculpture or water fountain or possibly a meditative space for spiritual solace and introspection. The public could interact there and share their perspectives in a safe environment, she said.

“What type of symbols do we have that go beyond individual ideologies and reveal the nature of the healing spirit?” she asked. “Richmond needs to honor something deeper and more powerful than fighting battles.”

James E. “J.J.” Minor III, president of the Richmond Branch NAACP, said Richmond needs a symbol of justice on Monument Avenue.

However, “I prefer to see statues of people representing justice — Oliver Hill, Henry Marsh and former Gov. Douglas Wilder and a few others — on Broad Street, where there is more traffic,” he said. “They helped to change the climate in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, as well as the state.”