Historian Maurie McInnis and Brenda Stevenson, and journalist Michael Paul Williams weigh in on the history and controversy of the Confederate monuments along Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue.
Speaker 1: Major funding for Back Story is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining David Foundations.
Nathan Connolly: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is Back Story.
Ed Ayers: Welcome to Back Story, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers.
Brian Balogh: I’m Brian Balogh.
Nathan Connolly: I’m Nathan Connolly. Each week, Brian, Ed, our colleague JoAnn Freeman and I, all historians, take a topic and explore its history.
Ed Ayers: Now, Brian, Nathan, let me take you back to 1890 in Richmond, Virginia. A large bronze statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee had just arrived from France. Now, this was 25 years after the end of the Civil War. The statue was transported on a boat up the James River.
Maurie McInnis: And then was hauled to the location and in the kind of ironies that you can only find in the South, mostly hauled now freed African American workers, who were the major laborers in the City of Richmond.
Ed Ayers: This is historian Maurie McInnis. She says the statue’s arrival caused a real stir.
Maurie McInnis: And the day of the unveiling was an enormous event in Richmond. The Capital of the Confederacy, tens of thousands of former Confederate soldiers returned to the city, dressed in their uniforms. There were parties and parades and speeches and events that consumed the city. Estimates were that more than 150,000 came to Richmond for the event.
Ed Ayers: In the decades that followed, more monuments appeared on what is now called Monument Avenue, a five mile long leafy boulevard, lined with ornate mansions.
In 1907, city leaders erected memorials to the Confederate leaders, Jeb Stuart and Jefferson Davis. Stonewall Jackson joined them in 1919 and a statue to Naval Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury was erected in 1929. And every time a new Confederate statue went up, White Richmonders flooded the streets to celebrate.
Maurie McInnis: It’s not just the presence of the work of art itself. It’s the activities that took place around the work of art. And it’s in those activities that the real meaning of the monuments were established.
Ed Ayers: Well, tell us about those meanings.
Maurie McInnis: Yeah, so these reunions that took place were martial reunions, these were military events. Former Confederate soldiers would dress up in uniform, the Calvary would be on horseback, bands would march in the front playing the music of The Civil War, flags were flying.
Ed Ayers: Their old officers showed up and gave them speeches?
Maurie McInnis: Exactly.
Ed Ayers: Yeah.
Maurie McInnis: And that sort of performance of Southern, White, military strength, both gave that meaning to those monuments, but also reminded African Americans in the City of Richmond of the power of the White majority.
Ed Ayers: Defeated what they had then.
Maurie McInnis: Supposedly defeated, but I think as the years went on, that defeat seemed less and less a reality.
Ed Ayers: White Southerners may have lost the war, but many refused to admit that they had been wrong. When powerful White leaders put up the monuments, they also popularized the idea of the lost cause.
Maurie McInnis: And there are a few basic kind of tenants to the narrative that gets written to explain the defeat in The Civil War. And one of the most important is that The Civil War was fought for state’s rights. And that the men who fought were brave and gallant. And they were not defeated on the battlefield, but instead they were overwhelmed by the greater might and numbers and money of the Union Army.
Ed Ayers: This lost cause narrative went hand in hand with the assertion of White Supremacy in the South.
Two years after The Civil War, the Federal Government began radical reconstruction in the South. Black men would vote, hold office, and help write new constitutions for their states. White Southerners fought against these changes in every way they could. And eventually, reconstruction collapsed.
Decades later, White Southern state leaders rewrote those Constitutions from reconstruction to strip the vote from African Americans and to create an oppressive system of segregation.
This is the political background, McInnis says, for the construction of Richmond’s Civil War monuments.
Maurie McInnis: I would argue that in many ways, though they are monuments to The Confederacy, they really tell us much more about the history of Jim Crow South of the desire by White Richmonders to reassert their social and political superiority.
Nathan Connolly: City leaders around the country have been debating the presence of their own Confederate monuments. Leaders in New Orleans have just taken down statues of Confederate leaders. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the City Council voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee and rename the park where it stands. But that effort has been challenged in court.
Brian Balogh: Today on the show, we’re gonna revisit stories from an episode we did in November 2015 about Confederate symbols in America. We’ll look at the monuments, statues, and the famous Confederate flags that got the American landscape. We’ll examine the history behind these symbols and we’re gonna explore what they mean to us today. We’ll also ask how they fit in America’s future.
Ed Ayers: But first, let’s return to that tree lined boulevard in Richmond, with its seven Confederate statues.
Michael W.: They sit without irony.
Ed Ayers: This is Michael Paul Williams, a columnist for The Richmond Times Dispatch.
Michael W.: People must visit Richmond and say, “Don’t they know they lost?” When Robin Williams came, did you hear what he said? He drove down Monument Avenue and he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many second place trophies in my life.”
Ed Ayers: Williams grew up in segregated Richmond and lived through the city’s racial turmoil in the 1960’s. He says that some of these tensions played out on Monument Avenue.
Michael W.: There was actually a movement in the 1960’s to expand Monument Avenue by seven additional Confederate monuments, if you can imagine that.
Ed Ayers: Wow.
Michael W.: It wasn’t clear exactly who would be honored, and in fact, I think at least one Times Dispatch or news leader editorial, questioned, “Well, where will we get these seven additional funds?” But just the idea that this was, even in the late 1960’s, in the midst of The Civil Rights Movement, that this was a potential insult to the African American community, did not seem to occur to anyone.
Ed Ayers: So, do you think was a reaction to The Civil Rights Movement? This is sort of the White South playing offense?
Michael W.: I could not dispel that, because frankly what happened on Monument Avenue was a reaction to the first reconstruction.
Ed Ayers: Right.
Michael W.: So, it stands to reason that there would be a reaction after The Civil Rights Movement and the approval of the Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act, and the sense that something is slipping away.
Ed Ayers: The statues of Monument Avenue have stood untouched for a century. But in 1996, the city did add a statue of African American tennis champion, Arthur Ashe, who grew up in Richmond.
Two years ago, Michael Paul Williams wrote a column, saying it was time to remove the Confederate Statues on Monument Avenue. Williams was moved to publish that editorial after a White Supremacist murdered eight African American people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Michael W.: It was kind of an aha moment. We can’t, as a nation, wade through the contradiction of a Confederate imagery in the public sphere and profess to be a freedom loving nation.
Ed Ayers: Williams think the monuments belong in a museum. He would like to see new monuments of African American heroes, such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Nat Turner, who led a failed rebellion of enslaved people.
Michael W.: If you’re gonna tell the entire story of Monument Avenue and Confederacy and Virginia history, you’ve got to include those who fought for their freedom, the oppressed and enslaved who fought for the freedom. One man’s lead of a bloody slavery revolt is another man’s freedom fighter. And if we’re gonna value life, we’ve got to acknowledge that life is equal and we have to add balance to the story.
Brenda S.: And the South is much more than just The Confederacy.
Ed Ayers: This is UCLA historian, Brenda Stevenson. She grew up in Virginia during the era of segregation.
Brenda S.: When you look around in the South and you see the monuments and the highways and the schools and the namings that I’m saying of these events, you would think that from 1607 until 2015, that this was The Confederacy. Not just from 1861 to 1865.
Ed Ayers: Stevenson says debates over Confederate monuments aren’t just about the past; they’re also about the present.
Brenda S.: And so, within the context of African Americans feelings as if economically we are taking steps back, within the criminal justice system that we are taking steps backwards, and so this debate about the Confederate monuments really comes within this really broader context.
Michael W.: And those monuments are a manifestation of the symbolism that created the world we live in today.
Ed Ayers: Michael Paul Williams is a columnist for The Richmond Times Dispatch. We also heard from historians Brenda Stevenson at UCLA and Maurie McInnis at The University of Texas at Austin.
Hey, Nathan, Brian, will you guys help me out on something?