An Open Letter to the Governor, Mayor, Members of City Council and the Monument Avenue Commission
In the discussion of the monuments, I started out in the “add context” camp until events outpaced my thinking. I looked at the “remove and relocate” position and can see a lot of merit and logic to the argument. Anything that causes pain to so many of our fellow Virginians demands that of all of us make a genuine effort to understand that pain. Likewise there are good, loving people (including in my own family) to whom the pain of removing memorials is just as real.
Having given the subject a good deal of thought, I remain in the “add context” camp. As I’ve heard said far and wide, it’s about history. Taking them down or leaving them be. Both claim to be defenders of history. Add to the mix that periodic arguments about the monuments are — and likely, will always be — also part of our Richmond history. That’s the first bit of context we need to add to the avenue. We argue. We try to make it right. Our modus operandi to date has been to add context and monuments on the avenue and throughout the city. Arthur Ashe, Abraham & Tad Lincoln and Henry “Box” Brown. And long overdue, Ms. Maggie Walker!
As they stand, the Confederate monuments represent four years of the 400 since the founding of Jamestown. That’s a whole lot of monument for 1% of Virginia history. As comedian Robin Williams quipped: “The world’s largest collection of second-place trophies.”
To my thinking, there are some compelling reasons to leave the monuments — and let me be perfectly clear — with brutally honest context added in large measure.
Richmond monuments, if I may be parochial, are different from monuments in other cities. The obvious history of serving as the “Capital of the Confederacy.” By date created and the generation that created the monuments. Equestrian art. Tourist attraction in a history filled city. Easter parades, marathons. One of America’s most beautiful avenues.
The monuments themselves are different. We’re not talking about a single 12-foot monument in a park. Again the logistics and cost of doing anything worries us. Certainly these monuments are different from those put up in homage to Jim Crow and “segregation now, segregation forever.” Although they certainly came with the baggage of their generation. They are not guarantors of second-class treatment standing in front of courthouses. They are, however, on a major avenue, and that’s a problem.
In a very real sense, Monument Avenue is also a museum. (Perhaps the world’s only drive-thru museum). It may be helpful to think of it in those terms; as a museum. And as with any museum, context is added as research is completed and all history is valued. The gallery is not gutted. It is re-envisioned and recreated.
Again quoting the Mayor: “For me, it’s about telling the complete truth. I don’t think removal of symbols does anything for telling the actual truth or changes the state and culture of racism in this country today.”
Will removing / relocating the monuments serve to tell the actual truth or change the state or culture of racism? No. Our Richmond history of the monuments is, as mentioned, to argue, to create new monuments and to add context. To the history of when and why these monuments were created, we need to add the context of removing flags and monuments — the actions we took in response to the events of Charleston and Charlottesville.
The reaction to immediately remove public Confederate memorabilia which serves as a cause and rallying point, is understandable and in many cases, long overdue. But in doing so, we forfeit reasoned authority over such matters. That the ignorant hatred and violence of the Klan and Nazis has prompted us to do anything — anything! — gives them too much sway over the issue. We should not change anything because fools defend it.
Will removing / relocating the monuments sooth or inflame? The answer is obvious. As the events of Charlottesville sickened us, we run the very real danger of repeating it on the avenue. If we do it (whatever “it” may be) in the wrong way. If we do it in haste.
Let’s fool those who would bring hatred to our city. Let’s begin — block by block — to create opportunities for small groups of good people to discuss the issues of monuments, actual truth, and the state and culture of racism. Let us talk quietly. Let us listen intently.
(Image the impact, for example, if each individual with the responsibility for making these decisions — Governor, Mayor, Members of City Council and the Monument Avenue Commission — would commit to creating and nurturing a conversation about “the state and culture of racism” in a group or organization to which he or she already belongs and feels safe.)
Enclosed is the “Welcome” page to GraceParkRVA.org — we’re one of many voices advocating a reasoned, respectful discussion that might serve to unite us. (More information, of course, available onsite). Our hope, for those to whom we’ve entrusted this decision, is that you will take a deep breath and resist the temptation to act in haste. The passions of the day are persuasive and must be given their due. More importantly, consider the voices of the generation who will live at the end of this century, who will ask if we were willing to do the hard work of healing.
(The above letter was mailed to each individual noted on September 14, 2017. To date, no response from anyone. Alas.)