ON MAY 29, 1890, the South rose again, at least in the minds of some unregenerate Confederates.
On that day, the Lee Monument, honoring the late rebel Gen. Robert E. Lee, was unveiled. It would become the centerpiece of Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Some 10,000 Richmonders reportedly helped pull four wagons containing pieces of the bronze edifice from the railroad station to its destination.
The monument was meant to be, among other things, a way to lure homeowners to what were then the western outskirts of the city. Economic hard times left it standing by itself in the middle of a tobacco field until the early 1900s. When economic conditions improved, four other Confederates—J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and the president of the rebel states, Jefferson Davis—were added to the avenue.
And now they’re gone.
The best you can say about the Lee Monument and the other statues on Richmond’s most famous street is that they were a real-estate ploy. The worst is that they were meant to be a reminder to Richmonders, and especially Black Richmonders, that Dixie was not dead.
An African American walking beneath Lee and his horse, 60 feet above, could hardly be faulted in assuming that old and unpleasant times there were not forgotten.
Race relations inched forward over the next 131 years. The arc of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s moral universe, the one that is supposed to bend toward justice, seemed not to bend very much at times, but we live in a much more equitable world than the one that existed in 1890.
However, as civil rights gains changed the nation, those monuments remained.
And then came George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Suddenly, Black and white Richmonders seemed to realize that they did not wish their city’s identity to be tied to a failed revolt based on preserving slavery. Individuals did some of the work. Politicians, seeing which the way the wind was blowing, did the rest, with the state Supreme Court applying the coup de grâce earlier this month by refusing to hear arguments from apologists who wanted to keep Marse Robert and Traveller on their perch.
Removing those monuments is not rewriting history. It is correcting history. No Virginia child, Black or white, will ever again be misled by grandiose statues into believing that leaders of an effort to keep people in chains are worthy of our adulation.
As with everything, there should be limits to what we tear down. Some slaveholding Virginians—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others—also built our country. They deserve to be remembered for the good they did, with that good put into context. They are worthy of monuments.
The fear here is that these giants who created the United States will be thrown into the same deplorable basket as the Confederates. When a movement really gets rolling, sometimes common sense is a casualty.
In San Francisco last summer, a crowd pulled down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. He was the guy who led the Union Army, folks.
That being said, there’s one thing that’s gone right in this masked-up, pandemic year. Richmond and Virginia are to be praised for consigning Confederate reverence to history’s dustbin.