A Street of Heroes?

There’s a stench growing on Monument Avenue, and it’s not because of the fertilizer they’ve been sprinkling on the grassy median. Rather, it’s due to the monolithic statues that line Monument Avenue, and the growing anti-Confederate sentiment that has circled the statues and become, quite frankly, the proverbial elephant in the room.

Monument Avenue is a historic stretch of road in Richmond that features statues of Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. It also features a statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the oceanographer who assisted the Confederacy with his scientific findings. Finally, it features Arthur Ashe, a humanitarian and tennis player.

Driving down the Avenue, it’s hard not to recognize the stunning beauty of the pristine Victorian houses that line the street, as well as the enormous statues that stand in the median. It is an iconic part of Richmond, and is home to some of the most exciting events that Richmond hosts, including the Easter Day Parade and the Monument Avenue 10K. However, the faces and names that have been chiseled into the stone and copper statues have, over the years, caused controversy.

On June 25th of 2015 (soon after the Charleston church shooting), a graffiti artist vandalized the statue of Jefferson Davis with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” causing a fuss in the city. A group called Virginia Flaggers gathered around the monument with dozens of Confederate flags to show support for the vandalized monument. Because there’s nothing better than a group of grumpy old white men waving Confederate flags to bring a city together in the wake of a race-based massacre. According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, one Flagger called the act of vandalism “disrespectful to America.” One could argue that seceding from the Union was equally, if not more, disrespectful. Since their showing at the Jefferson Davis monument, the Virginia Flaggers have been in the news for flying a plane over the city with a misspelled banner reading “Confederate Heros Matter.”

It makes sense that Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, should recognize its history. Simply acknowledging the past, however, is pointless if we can not learn from the mistakes we made. And honoring men — men who fought in a war largely (if not entirely) centered around the states’ rights to own slaves — with monuments in the middle of our city is not the way to learn from our mistakes. On the contrary, it’s showing the people of Richmond that we celebrate their actions and the cause they supported.

The first (and only) non-Confederate related statue on Monument Avenue came with the introduction of the Arthur Ashe statue, which angered people as well when it was first displayed in 1995. Many Richmonders, white and black, thought Monument Avenue, home of Confederate generals, was the wrong location for the statue. Henry W. Richardson, one of five blacks on the nine-member Richmond City Council at the time, defended the choice by saying, “Arthur didn’t ride a horse, and he didn’t shoot a gun. But Arthur Ashe was a hero.”

Ashe, an accomplished tennis player known for his three Grand Slam wins and for raising awareness and money for AIDS research, is honored with a statue sculpted by Paul di Pasquale. It supposedly depicts Ashe’s dedication to humanitarianism and athletics. Unfortunately, however, as RVA Mag (among other online articles and threads) points out, Ashe looks more like he’s holding a book away from children whilst beating them with a tennis racket. Others criticized the quality of the statue as a whole. When the controversy was at its zenith, one Richmonder was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “Arthur Ashe was a man of grace. And this thing is so static it reminds me of a mannequin.”

Photo Credit: Flickr (@rvaphotodude)

Photo Credit: Flickr (@rvaphotodude)

Time and again, Monument Avenue and the Confederate statues have served to be a point of confusion when I talk to friends who don’t live in the South. They don’t understand why people would be comfortable living in a city where we drive past massive idols to men who supported a system that treated people as property based on their skin color and led to the most costly war in U.S. history. It makes me embarrassed to say I live in Richmond.

While a petition has made its rounds on the internet asking for the removal of the statues from Richmond, I believe the backlash from Richmonders would be difficult to handle — perhaps it would be counterproductive. The statues are here for good, for better or for worse. I do, however, support Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ approach to the topic, in which he calls for more monuments honoring other important figures from Richmond, such as Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to charter a bank. This would give Monument Avenue a more balanced look at history, and help us recognize and learn from all aspects of Richmond.

But please, Richmond — if you place a monument of Maggie L. Walker, Edgar Allen Poe, or the handful of other influential figures who have shaped Richmond’s history — don’t raise your Confederate flags in protest. And please – please – don’t make them look like they’re mercilessly beating children.

Editors’ Note: The opinions published by The Match are solely those of the authors, and not of the entire publication or its staff as a whole. The Match welcomes thoughtful commentary and response to our content. You can respond in the comments below, but please do so respectfully. Letters to the Editors will be published, but they are subject to revision based on content and length. Letters can be sent to match@collegiate-va.org.

About the author

William Bennett, born in California and raised in Richmond, Virginia, is a freelance illustrator, graphic designer, comic book artist and rising high school senior at the Collegiate School.