’Monumental Conversations:’ RPS launches new, free app offering insight into community feelings about Confederate statues that lined Monument Avenue

Chip Lauterbach | 9/16/2021, 6 p.m.
A new mobile app gives people the ability to hear the stories of the generational resistance of Black Richmonders to ...
Richmond Public Schools, School Board, City Council and other officials applaud the unveiling of the “Monumental Conversations” app last Sunday outside the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Photo by Chip Lauterbach

A new mobile app gives people the ability to hear the stories of the generational resistance of Black Richmonders to the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue that once stood as symbols of the white “Lost Cause” narrative.

Richmond schools Superintendent Jason Kam- ras introduced “Monumental Conversations,” an augmented reality tour of Monument Avenue and educational effort about the dismantled statues that is the result of a partnership between Richmond Public Schools, Novaby Designs and several Richmond area museums, including the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia.

The launch event, held Sunday on the steps of the participating Virginia Museum of History & Culture on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, drew several School Board and City Council members and other elected officials and featured members of the Binford Dance Company from the middle school.

Middle school students with the Binford Dance Company perform during the event.

Middle school students with the Binford Dance Company perform during the event.

“This app really represents everything that we stand for at RPS,” Mr. Kamras said. “It’s about telling the full history of Richmond—the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The augmented reality tour begins with users downloading the app onto their cell phones and using QR codes to hear and see information along the tour route.

The app can be downloaded for free at www.monumentalconversations.org.

The tour’s first stop is at artist Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” statue outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Arthur Ashe Boulevard, where app users hear drum beats and cheers and hear Mr. Wiley’s voice in December 2019 when his statue was unveiled before a crowd of thousands.

Participants can listen to several clips of Mr. Wiley’s speech that day and about the significance of “Rumors of War” as a conversation starter in defiant opposition to the former Confederate equestrian statues in Richmond.

The tour then advances with a stop at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, giving participants a brief history of tennis champion and Richmond native Arthur Ashe Jr. and a timeline of how the street became named in honor of the man who was a strong voice for human rights and positive change.

The tour’s remaining stops are along Monument Avenue, beginning at the intersection of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, the site where Con- federate Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s statue stood before being taken down last July following large-scale demonstrations in the city calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

James Gordon, the principal of Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School, is among some of the local voices heard on the app at this stop, giving his reflections on the conundrum he faced when having to explain to his students in the past why the statues, relics of a shameful past, were still there.

“As a teacher, it means that I feel a lot better,” Mr. Gordon says. “I had to look my students in the eye and say, ‘I’m not sure why this is still here.’ I was oblivious forever. It’s never too late to keep learning, to better understand the purpose of the monuments and how they affect all of our friends and neighbors.”

The main attraction is at the traffic circle where the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stood until Sept. 8.

Richmond high school student Asia Dudley lends her voice to the final stop around the fenced off circle where an empty pedestal stands.

“While the protests caught many off guard, others hoped and saw a day like this coming with surprising clarity,” Asia says speaking of the massive shift in attitudes about the presence of the statues honoring men who fought to preserve slavery and the hope for the statues’ removal.

Although the app is still in the beta phase with several upgrades expected during the next few weeks, several audio clips from the removal of the 12-ton Lee statue last week were quickly added to the tour. Short narratives are also available along the walk between each stop.

School Board Chairwoman Cheryl L. Burke, who also spoke at the event, was impressed at the way the development unfolded from a concept two years ago. She said she was delighted that RPS students now will have the opportunity to know and to hear the true history behind Richmond’s past involvement in the slave trade and Jim Crow-era tactics of intimidation against African-American residents, including placing the Confederate statues along a mile and a half stretch of Monument Avenue.

Mr. Kamras expressed appreciation for the number of organizations that helped in the development of the app, including a $10,000 grant from the U.S. State Department.

“It’s that collaboration, working together truly as a village, which is one of the things that fuels us at RPS,” Mr. Kamras said.

“This is truly a vision coming to fruition because of these collaborations and partnerships. We couldn’t do it alone,” Ms. Burke said. “Our vision is to make sure every child—red, yellow, white, black, it doesn’t matter—has the opportunity to know thyself,” she said.

The event was planned long before the Virginia Supreme Court’s Sept. 2 decision that opened the door legally for the removal of the last statue, that of Lee. Gov. Ralph S. Northam had ordered the state-owned statue to be removed in June 2020, but was blocked by court challenges.

Meanwhile, Mayor Levar M. Stoney issued an emergency order in July 2020 — and City Council concurred — for the removal of the city-owned Confederate statues.

With the Lee statue coming down right before the release of the app, Grady Hart, the head of community partnerships for RPS and the driving force behind the development of the app, was thrilled.

“It feels so incredible to actually be here and to see it happen. And honestly, the timing couldn’t be better,” Mr. Hart said. “It was not really the plan for this to happen the same week that monumental change took place. This to me feels like part of the city of Richmond is really hitting that turning point and starting to really talk about what the future looks like.”