statue of Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia

Toppling statues is a first step toward ending Confederate myths

The statues rewrote history, reflecting the values of those who erected them. Removing them won’t erase history.

Protesters gather peacefully one evening at Robert E. Lee Circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. “BLM” for Black Lives Matter is projected on Lee’s horse, while a photograph of Marcus David Peters, a 24-year-old Black man killed by a Richmond police officer, is projected onto the pedestal, which is covered with graffiti.

Like dominoes, the Confederate statues along Richmond, Virginia’s historic Monument Avenue are coming down one by one. The first to topple was the likeness of Jefferson Davis. The president of the Confederate States of America had loomed over the street since 1907; on June 10, a tow truck carted it away. Three weeks later, on July 1, it was General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson’s turn to fall. A day later, a truck with a hydraulic lift came for Admiral Matthew Fontaine Maury, who had spent part of the Civil War drumming up European support for the Confederacy.

I paid a visit to Monument Avenue before Richmond’s mayor ordered that Jackson and other statues under city control be removed. At noon on the day I was there, people of all ages and races quietly milled around the traffic circle beneath the bronze likeness of Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee on horseback towering 60 feet overhead. The base of the statue is now technicolor with graffiti; around it is a halo of placards depicting Black men killed in police custody. Standing in the shade down the lush boulevard, a 70-year-old Black resident named Tommye Finley said, “When I first moved here from Mississippi, I thought these statues were ridiculous. Why build a street for losers?…Psychologically, it’s perpetuating a system. It’s saying, ‘We still have the upper hand.’”

Coming at a time of a global pandemic and economic turmoil, the suddenness of the removals is leading to further disorientation and anxiety for some. For them, statues project the illusion of permanence, though they are in fact frequently removed during moments of social upheaval—by Romans after the fall of the tyrant Nero, by American revolutionaries against King George III, and by U.S. troops in post-Saddam Iraq. Still, the sense of loss some Americans have expressed when such totems fall is revealing. “Americans look for heroes, sometimes more than we look for the truth,” says Mabel O. Wilson, a professor of architecture at Columbia University. “And as these statues show, we’re very good at mythmaking.”

By saying this, Wilson is challenging the notion that removing statues is tantamount to erasing history. The “story” in “history” has a somewhat less-than-neutral authorship. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, among the most forceful advocates of the monuments, insisted that its members simply wished to honor the memory of their fallen forebears. But the plaques commissioned for these statues frequently referenced the “rightness” of the Confederate cause.

The recent videotaped footage of a Black man from Minneapolis named George Floyd slowly dying while a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck has prompted an urgent reckoning of America’s intractable race problems. A subset of that reappraisal involves our country’s enduring landscape of memorials to Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve slavery. Who erected them, and when, and why? And what, if any, value do they offer today?

Some officials across the country have responded—as they did in 2015, when a white supremacist massacred nine African Americans in a South Carolina church, and two years later, when another white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia fatally struck a protester with his automobile—by hastily removing Confederate emblems from public areas, sometimes in the dead of night. In other instances, activists have done the removing themselves, as was the case with the Jefferson Davis statue in Richmond. When Mayor Levar Stoney ordered Jackson and other Confederate statues removed, he wrote in a Tweet: “It's time for the healing to start. For public safety, for our history, for our future—the monuments to the Lost Cause are coming down.”

When I met recently with Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor of religious studies, she was carrying a 1914 publication written by Laura Martin Rose, a prominent Daughter of that era, entitled, The Ku Klux Klan, or the Invisible Empire. Handing me the pamphlet, Schmidt directed me to a passage in which the author affectionately described Confederate soldiers as “the real Ku Klux.” Smiling, the African-American scholar said, “They affect such a genteel posture. But nah—they were all up in this. There’s no innocence here.”

The statues along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, like others across America, were erected decades after the Civil War. At that point in history, says Julian Hayter, a professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, “White Southerners had come to terms with slavery being over. What they hadn’t come to terms with was their loss of status.”

Thus came the Jim Crow Era. A rebranding of the Confederate commander (and slaveowner) Lee as a courtly defender of “states’ rights” was underway. So were lynchings throughout the South. A gathering of at least 100,000, larger than Richmond’s population at the time, attended the unveiling of the Lee statue in 1890. But this was not democracy in action. Echoing the dismayed view of his community, the city’s most prominent African American, Richmond Planet publisher John Mitchell Jr., foresaw a “legacy of treason and blood.” (Related: Remembering the ‘Red Summer,’ when white mobs massacred Black Americans from Tulsa to D.C.)

A decade later, Virginia legislators rewrote the state’s constitution to ensure the segregation of its public schools and the disenfranchisement of most of its black voters. But, says Hayter, “they also baked into the constitution a Fort Knox of legalese that would make it virtually impossible to tear these monuments down. See, the people who built them knew this day was coming!”

This was the second time I had spent a morning in Richmond. The first had been equally memorable. It was November 4, 2008, Election Day, when I arose early from a hotel bed and drove with my notepad to a polling precinct before the voting for the next president was to begin at six o’clock. At one predominantly African-American precinct, I encountered a line stretching several blocks long. Among the hundreds were several elderly Black voters who had been sitting in folding chairs in soggy conditions since three in the morning. Their stoic tenacity would win out: Barack Obama’s victory was imminent. My mistake at the time was to believe that race relations in America would improve because of it.

As a white male Southerner of a certain age, Confederate statues had been lifelong fixtures. I saw them in the city parks of Houston and St. Louis during my childhood, on campus at the University of Texas at Austin as a college student, and in the downtown square of Asheville, North Carolina where I lived for a spell. Two decades ago, then-Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. gave me a tour of the U.S. Capitol that was tailored to show me the Confederates and Southern racist demagogues enshrined there. Only then did I begin to appreciate what it must be like for a Black man like Jackson to look up every day at oppressors of his race. To my shame, I then realized I had unconsciously received these deified Neoclassical figures as I had my all-white neighborhoods and my relentless diet of all-white culture—which is to say, as credulously as my adolescent eyes had absorbed the Gothic whitewashing of plantation life in Gone with the Wind. What is a statue, after all, if not a single story told in perpetuity? And yet the repetition does not make the story true.

“Monuments don’t teach history,” says Adam Domby, a Civil War historian and author of the recently published book False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory. “Instead, monuments are about values. And so if a community decides it doesn’t want to be represented by a statue someone put up a century ago, who am I to tell them they don’t have that right?”

I put that question one afternoon to a retired Navy veteran and attorney named Buddy Weber while we sat on his shady porch in Charlottesville. Weber is the spokesman for the Monument Fund, a group initially formed to help preserve that city’s Confederate statues, but which now is mounting a legal defense to save them from being toppled. A native of Baltimore with no genealogical or ideological ties to Confederate heritage, Weber nonetheless is contemptuous of the “social justice warriors” who he sees as representing a cultural spasm untethered to logic. “You take these statues down—whose life in Charlottesville will be improved by that?” he said. (Monuments around the world are falling as the globe reckons with a racist past.)

In Weber’s view, the state’s 1902 constitution may have smacked of Jim Crow, but when it came to war memorials, “the law was good public policy. It singled them out for protection. They’re sacrosanct. They’re there for discussion, or to be argued about. You don’t take them down.”

But, as Weber glumly acknowledges, that’s no longer the case: On July 1, the commonwealth’s lawmakers returned authority over most of the statues to cities like Charlottesville. “The laws changed, and I have to accept that,” he said somberly. “These statues are going to go.”

I said goodbye to Buddy Weber and took UVA professor Jalane Schmidt up on her offer to show me around the Confederate sites. We met in the city’s verdant courthouse square, beside the statue of the anonymous soldier known as Johnny Reb, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909, more than four decades after the Civil War had ended. As Schmidt described the ubiquity of this type of cheaply made figure throughout the South, a middle-aged white woman with a small, fluffy white dog on a leash approached. After eavesdropping for a minute, she interrupted Schmidt, saying, “I heard Blacks were involved in the slave trade. How come you don’t talk about that in your tours?”

Schmidt politely informed the woman that we were here to discuss Virginia’s history, not Africa’s. We then edged away to the west side of the square. There loomed another statue of Stonewall Jackson astride his great horse—both figures taut and hyper-alert, as if on the very precipice of combat. Buddy Weber had said to me, “History is what our ancestors tell us, not what we tell ourselves.” In the case of this world-famous equestrian marvel, Weber went on, “That’s a timeless face of a general motivating his troops. I can relate to it as a military man.”

Schmidt agreed that the statue was a work of art, pointing out the horse’s sinews and the detail of the horseshoes. But, she added, there was another side to this history. Where we now stood, a small but thriving Black neighborhood, known as McKee Block, had been bought up and then razed in 1918 by a white developer named Paul Goodloe McIntire, who subsequently had the space re-zoned as a white-only park whose centerpiece would be the Jackson statue. At its unveiling in 1921, UVA president Edwin Alderman reminded the thousands gathered that the fallen Confederate general had fought for “a war of ideas, principles, political contentions, and of loyalty to ancient ideals of English freedom.”

The plaque near the statue commemorating McIntire, which Schmidt read aloud, says: “He gave the statue and this park to Charlottesville, the city of his birth, for the pleasure of all who pass by.” The African-American scholar paused a beat. Then, reciting all the events that had taken place within a half-mile from the plaque—slave auctions, Klan rallies, gentrification, the white supremacist rallies of 2017, and the tear-gassing of counter-protesters—she offered an alternative history.

“This is a landscape of trauma,” she said.

What will become of these statues? Charlottesville’s likeness of Stonewall Jackson will surely find a home. Less certain are other Confederate objects of questionable artistic merit. Meanwhile, after more than a century of being ignored, a multiracial movement to topple racist icons has induced panic and outrage among civic leaders and pundits. Some of the shrillest predict mobs will seize upon the slightest imperfection of every memorialized hero and tear them from their pedestals and their places in history. This is unlikely. Society makes its living drawing lines, and the jumble of participants in this cartography is the happy price we pay for our democracy.

As for the toppling of Confederates on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, I learned that the city’s oldest museum, the Valentine, was in talks with various interested parties about potentially housing them. The museum’s longtime director Bill Martin was a bit nervous about the subject when we met in the museum’s courtyard.

“The response to the monuments needs to be community-based,” Martin said. “This period of Richmond’s history has always been over-represented. If we’re going to be a city museum, we want to make sure that our 1.6 million objects represent the full population.”

Martin’s museum says it “uses the complicated and nuanced history of this important region to challenge and inspire a diverse audience,” and he did leave me with the clear impression that it was not interested in housing Lee, Davis, and the others if restored to their original condition. The Valentine would only display them in their current graffiti-covered state.

“They’ve now been transformed to something else,” the director said.

In their disfigurement, the statues had become like the Venus de Milo, telling a story much longer and richer in truth than the one intended by its creator.

Kris Graves (b. 1982, New York City) is an American artist based in New York and London. His work primarily focuses on landscape architecture and portraiture. To view more of his works, visit his website or follow him on Instagram.

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