Community advocate raises concerns about City’s new Confederate shrine

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/6/2023, 6 p.m.
Even as Mayor Levar M. Stoney and City Council revive a citizen commission to help Richmond eliminate slavery-defending Confederate names …
City workers installed a fence around a confederate marker at the Department of Public Works substation in the 2400 block of Wise Street. The upgrades to the shrine, which references Confederate soldiers who died at a nearby hospital, cost more than $16,000. Photo by Jeremy Lazarus

Even as Mayor Levar M. Stoney and City Council revive a citizen commission to help Richmond eliminate slavery-defending Confederate names from streets and bridges, the city Department of Public Utilities has created a new shrine to fallen Civil War rebels.

DPU has spent more than $16,000 to create the shrine on the grounds of its substation in the 2400 block of Wise Street in South Side, according to department records.

April Bingham, DPU director, did not respond to Free Press requests for comment about the activity that was undertaken without any apparent review or approval from the council or elements of city government that are charged with considering alterations to public property.

Ornamental fencing now surrounds a marker the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed on the site in 1939 to remember 100 South Carolina Confederate soldiers who died at a makeshift Civil War hospital that once filled the home at 2408 Wise St., across from the marker.

A bench costing $1,068 has been placed in the enclosure facing the marker and remains covered with wrapping.

At the time it was installed more than 73 years ago, the city promised to maintain the marker in perpetuity. However, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that such promises are unenforceable.

Michael “Mike” Sarahan, a community advocate who has pushed for removal of the Wise Street marker along with others, has been raising concern about the shrine development, seeing it as flouting the new city policy of removing Confederate memorials from public spaces.

It is not clear why the Confederate marker has been allowed to remain. DPU, itself, has stated that the marker is not located where anyone was buried. DPU information on the Wise Street substation states that the department “relocated the graves to the rear of the site several decades prior to erecting the utility building,” meaning there are no dead bodies on the grounds.

The department’s action appears to counter efforts of the mayor and the council to eliminate the last vestiges of the Confederacy from city property.

At the March 27 meeting, council approved the mayor’s plan to revive the History and Culture Commission that was launched in 2018 to advise on dealing with the city’s Confederate statues, but largely remained a paper advisory group.

Most of the statues were removed in 2020 during an outbreak of protests over police brutality, though the final one did not come down until two years later due to legal complications. Confederate markers also were removed, notably one at the Manchester Courthouse that Mr. Sarahan had lobbied for the city to eliminate.

The revived commission is to have nine members, five appointed by the mayor and four by the council, according to the newly passed ordinance.

Once the appointees are in place, the advisory commission, among other things, would be charged with coming up with a list of streets, bridges and other places bearing Confederate monikers and offer recommendations for new names.