From the moment the Robert E. Lee statue was erected on Monument Avenue, it was “an object of public interest.” That was part of a front-page headline in the Richmond Dispatch on May 31, 1890, two days after the structure was unveiled.
“From sunrise to sunset the seats on the grand-stand were occupied by ladies and gentlemen, who, sheltered from the rays of the sun by umbrellas and parasols, made a calm survey and close study of the statue,” the article said. “The general comment was favorable,” and the scene included “visitors and residents of Richmond.”
Was the Dispatch the popular opinion at the time or just the most powerful? How did a Richmond Planet headline, rooted in the hearts and minds of former slaves, frame the statue’s arrival? “Thousands present—Confederate flags everywhere displayed.”
“The South may revere the memory of its chieftains,” the Planet’s front-page article said. “It takes the wrong steps in so doing, and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration.”
We’re still litigating the divide between “favorable” and “wrong” on the monuments. But what made 2020 the tipping point? Consider the grueling coronavirus pandemic, the grisly murder of George Floyd—and critical layers of demographic change.
Since the turn of the century, new community voices have added a dimension to Richmond’s long-simmering debate over how to address its complex history. In 2015, the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service documented some trends that have shaped “Richmond’s Quiet Transformation.”
Consider the years leading up to the polarizing 2016 presidential race. Richmond’s white population jumped by 30% from 2005 to 2015, but through migration to the city, not just births. While the city’s black population fell from 57% in 2000, it steadily edged back toward 50%. From 2000 to 2015, more vertical building took place, as new construction in Richmond tripled. And so did the number of people who identify as more than one race, to around 9,000.
“This is likely in part due to Virginia having the highest rate of marriage between blacks and whites in the country, but also because as racial identity means increasingly less today, many people are identifying with more than one race, some even writing in their own race,” the Weldon Cooper Center said.
A 2017 study by the Urban Land Institute for Time Magazine identified Hampton Roads and Richmond as two top spots for millennial growth from 2010 to 2015. Hampton Roads added more than 7,000 residents, while Richmond added more than 5,000. And Virginia’s statewide growth—from 7 million people in 2000 to 8.5 million this past year—has led to fresh legislative voices.
Elections and legislation preceded violence as the desired mechanism to give localities a say in the placement of Confederate monuments. And the voices shaping that debate increasingly are new and nonnative. The 2020 General Assembly had a majority of members born out of state. Almost 40% of the House of Delegates was elected in 2017 or later, along with 20% of the Virginia Senate.
What about barriers that prevented demographics from driving change in Richmond sooner, like the 1960s? “In a period when most Jim Crow laws remained in effect, the prospect of soon having a majority black city was alarming to Richmond’s leaders,” the Weldon Cooper Center added. “To diminish blacks’ voting power, Richmond filed to annex predominantly white suburbs in neighboring counties and to change its city council to an at-large system.”
Today’s volatility brings stark reminders of the atmosphere in 1890, when the Lee statue first came into public view. In its same May 31 story from that year, the Dispatch wrote of how a detail of soldiers “still guard the spot and their services will doubtless have to be prolonged indefinitely.” The piece added that it was necessary to have someone on watch “at all hours” for “wanton boys … may mark or otherwise injure the monument.”
On page three of the Planet, again, there was a different tone. Under the headline “LYNCHED!,” the paper dedicated space to 387 Southerners who lost their lives through such savagery from 1887 to 1889. “Shall this barbarity continue, until the God of retribution marshals his strength against the barbarians?” asked the closing paragraph.
The violence and vandalism gripping Richmond’s streets today is wanton. The video of Floyd’s murder—and the Lost Cause propagated by our Confederate monuments—is barbarity.
But the general comment toward the monuments today cannot be as easily characterized as “favorable.” And the sentiment against their presence in the middle of Richmond’s streets was not first conceived on May 29, 2020. The argument for change burst on that day, in our city and others across the nation.
Once again, we don’t condone the violence that has toppled these structures’ place in our city’s history. But we must know and recognize why change is taking place, and our leaders must establish a civil venue that brings real closure. That is today’s “object of public interest” for Richmond—democracy, shared prosperity and common good going forward.