“Mommy, why did they make a statue for someone who wanted slavery?”
My then-4-year-old son asked me this question in 2018 as we circled around the J.E.B. Stuart memorial on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. I had just explained who the man was and why he fought in a war. Having grown up white in the rural South, indoctrinated in the Lost Cause narrative that romanticizes and venerates the Confederacy, it never occurred to me as a child to question such a thing. But to my son, it was clear that to glorify someone who fought to maintain the oppression of others was wrong.
He’s right. It is wrong. And it is time for the Confederate monuments to go.
In Richmond, the decision at last has been made. Mayor Levar Stoney and Gov. Ralph Northam have pledged to remove the statues along Monument Avenue in direct response to Black Lives Matter protests. But a descendant of the family who donated land for the Robert E. Lee memorial has put forth a lawsuit to slow the process.
Meanwhile, the Christopher Columbus statue recently was tossed into a Byrd Park lake and the Jefferson Davis monument was toppled from its shrine. These local acts echo the destruction of memorials to colonialism and slavery across the globe. In Louisville, Ky., where Breonna Taylor was killed by police, King Louis XVI lost his hand to angry demonstrators. In Belgium, King Leopold II, whose policies brutalized Congo, was set aflame, and in Bristol, England, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dumped into a river.
Protesters have made visible what advocates for monument removal have argued all along. They have demonstrated the symbolic power of the statues that tower over our city.
Activists gather daily at the artworks, making speeches from aloft granite steps that have been decorated with a rainbow of graffiti. When I recently visited the Stuart monument, four skateboarders had taken up residence, spinning tricks off the foot of the horsebound fallen hero. The once frigid Monument Avenue is teeming with contemporary art and public contestation.
One of Richmond’s monuments stands ready to outlive the others. Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” majestically sits at the entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The 2019 sculpture borrows elements from the Confederate memorials, but atop the fiery steed in Wiley’s statue, a young black man towers. His spiky, dreadlocked ponytail and Nike sneakers mark him from a different time, placing the present into the narrative of the past. The horse and rider look to be charging north, right at the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) headquarters next door. The building was set aflame in the first night of passionate protest in the city.
The UDC had a powerful hand in the construction of memorials, most of which were installed at the height of Jim Crow, rather than after the Civil War’s resolution. The monuments didn’t just change urban landscapes; they signaled white authority over public spaces at a time when racist violence was surging in the wake of Reconstruction. Whites had begun to fear the economic and political ascendancy of their African American neighbors, and as a result, they terrorized black communities through lynching and by rioting in places like Wilmington, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla. Through their work, the UDC wielded white Southern femininity like a silent weapon.
On the night after news spread that the monuments would be removed, crowds rallied again. A young man stood high on the Lee statue, holding a sign that said “Rumors of war wasn’t a rumor.” Indeed.
Protesters have shown the power of art to transform the stale narratives of the past and to imagine a new future. As the statues make their leave, let us replace them with works by contemporary creatives who can create a vision for a new South in the ashes of the Confederacy.
I welcome this revolution and I hope to be part of a reclamation of Southern identity that celebrates black Southerners, and their history and experience, at the fore of regional pride. May these changes be far more than symbolic: The true demands of the movement must be met with an end to white supremacy, racism and police violence.