by Nicole Maurantonio, author of Confederate Exceptionalism: Civil War Myth and Memory in the Twenty-First Century
On Thursday, June 4, 2020, Virginia governor Ralph Northam announced plans to remove the statue memorializing Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a historic thoroughfare long recognized as a commemorative bastion of Lost Cause mythology. The city’s mayor, Levar Stoney, followed suit, announcing the proposed removal of statues of the four other Confederate leaders lining the residential avenue: Jefferson Davis, J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. These announcements came on the heels of national and international protests sparked by news of the murder of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
While Northam’s and Stoney’s announcements were initially met in my home city with optimism and hope for the future, at least among many, an injunction issued by a Richmond judge on June 8 that temporarily blocked the removal of the Lee monument reminds us that resistance to change is both real and deeply anchored in Monument Avenue’s racist history.
As I read news of the injunction, I was struck by the language of the judge’s order—that the state had, in March 1890, months prior to the Lee statue’s May dedication, agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue, pedestal, and ground on which they sit (known as “Lee Circle” until recent protests led to the informal renaming of the site to Marcus David Peters Circle, after a Black man killed by police in 2018). In 1890, as what would become Monument Avenue was being envisioned, it was clear what was truly being “guarded” and “protected”: whiteness. There was nothing subtle about this message. During the period of Jim Crow, advertisements lined the city’s newspaper, the Richmond Dispatch, assuring white readers that potential residents of “African descent” would be excluded from the neighborhood. More than 130 years later, as debates surrounding the meaning of these monuments have flared, the message continues to resonate.
As part of the research for my book Confederate Exceptionalism: Civil War Myth and Memory in the Twenty-First Century, I attended a series of neo-Confederate events ranging from commemorative celebrations to rallies, each of which was intended to affirm a particular yet historically inaccurate narrative: that the Confederacy was not an entity steeped in racism but rather one in which Black people were, in most cases, part of the family, respected and cared for. Many of the individuals I met over the course of the years I conducted my research maintained that Black Confederates were a vital constituency eager and willing to protect their homes and, by extension, their enslavers.
While the myth of the Black Confederate has been debunked by historians, calls for the “preservation” of Monument Avenue and other sites of Confederate commemoration—sites for the celebration of what neo-Confederates maintain signal “heritage not hate”—persist. In my book, I argue that such calls not only elide the monuments’ racist history but also affirm the desire of many whites to see Monument Avenue and sites like it remain suspended in time, divorced from history—a historic habitat diorama.
The once-pristine diorama—quiet and undisturbed—has, in recent weeks, been disrupted. Jefferson Davis was toppled from his pedestal on Monument Avenue. Covered in pink paint, the president of the Confederacy was left lying in the street. The Lee monument is now covered in vibrant graffiti decrying police violence. It has been transformed into a makeshift memorial, a site of pilgrimage for those fighting for racial justice.
While the judge’s injunction has stalled the Lee statue’s removal temporarily, it seems as though a return to stasis—to the status quo—is untenable. The monument will be removed—a symbolic dismantling of white supremacy culture in the former capital of the Confederacy. And we will be better for it.
Nicole Maurantonio is associate professor of rhetoric and communication studies and American studies at the University of Richmond. She is the coeditor, with David W. Park, of Communicating Memory & History.