By Stephen Laming
For the last few years, cities, towns, and universities around the United States have been struggling with how to handle statues of Confederate leaders and soldiers, as well as buildings and memorials honoring those that fought for the South in the Civil War. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified over 1,500 symbols of the Confederacy in the United States. A debate around the use of these symbols started in July 2015 when self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in hopes of starting a “race war.” Roof posted pictures and videos of himself with the Confederate battle flag, leading people to question how the United States should handle Civil War imagery still used today. Recently, the debate has focused on statues honoring Civil War leaders: should the statues be taken down because they represent racism, or should the statues stay because they represent history?
The debate came into the national spotlight six weeks ago with a violent rally in Charlottesville on August 12, leaving one dead and 19 injured. This “Unite the Right” rally was intended to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, but rally co-organizer (and founder of white supremacist organization Identity Evropa) Nathan Damigo also added the goal of the rally was to “unify white nationalist factions.” White nationalist and Neo-Nazi groups showed up from all around the country wanting to support keeping Confederate monuments standing. Yet even more monuments have come down across the country since the rally.
Baltimore was one of the earliest cities to take action after the tragedy in Charlottesville by removing two of its statues in the middle of the night with no warning, just four days after the rally. When pressed about the sudden and secretive removal of Baltimore’s statues, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said the statues represented pain and violence, and it “was in the best interest of my city” to have them removed immediately. Mayor Pugh has been working since earlier this year to remove Baltimore’s Confederate statues, and she only accelerated the process after Charlottesville. Baltimore is not alone; dozens of other cities across the country, ranging from Austin, Texas, to Madison, Wisconsin, have begun taking down their monuments. Months before Charlottesville, New Orleans removed four of their monuments honoring Confederate leaders, with Mayor Mitch Landrieu citing the need of “making right what was wrong.”
Currently, Richmond is in an ongoing debate of how to handle its statues. As the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond has symbols of the Confederacy all across the city. Currently, the debate is centered around the five Confederate statues—Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury—on Monument Avenue, but other statues are under criticism as well. Former Collegiate students Clayton Wickham (’10) and his brother Will wrote a letter to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the city council regarding their great-great-great grandfather, Confederate General William Carter Wickham. In the letter, they wrote General Wickham “unapologetically accrued power and wealth through the exploitation of enslaved people” and the removal of his statue in Monroe Park, near VCU’s campus in downtown Richmond, is “long overdue.”
In June, Stoney assembled a special committee consisting of historians, scholars, and local leaders tasked with handling the Monument Avenue statues. The Monument Avenue Commission’s goal is to listen to community input on how to add context to the statues and tell the whole story of history, while still keeping the statues. Following the Charlottesville tragedy, when many civic leaders were announcing plans to remove Confederate statues, Mayor Stoney was asked whether the goal of the commission would change. Stoney confirmed the committee would still listen to input from the community, but also added “[The committee] will include an examination of the removal and/or relocation of some or all of the Confederate statues.” Mayor Stoney personally wants the statues removed and believes “[The statues] are offensive… and should be part of our dark past and not of our bright future.” If the committee comes to the conclusion that the monuments should be removed, Mayor Stoney will still have to take the proposition to the City Council for final approval and financing.
Most recently, a small group came to Richmond on Sunday, Sept. 16 to protest the possible removal of Lee’s Monument Avenue statue. The protest was organized by the New Confederate States of America, a small group based out of Tennessee. They proclaim they “are not a hate organization,” and only want to protect heritage. Seven protesters were met by hundreds of counter protesters, and the rally ended non-violently after about an hour and a half.