I hadn’t quite remembered how imposing the monuments are on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. But I quickly realized their scale when looking at slides during the National Council for Public History’s last session of the Baltimore annual meeting. This session, about the fate of Confederate monuments following the Charleston murders, reminded me of the size and power of these memorials. The 21-foot bronze Robert E. Lee statue towers over the grand promenade on its 40-foot high granite pedestal. The Lee monument was the first and is the largest of the five monuments to Confederate history. The others are for JEB Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. The highly contested Arthur Ashe sculpture, placed in 1996, completes the monumental collection. The National Park Service in 1997 designated the Monument Avenue National Historic Landmark District, nationally significant for its architecture and as an example of city planning. According to NPS, Monument Avenue is the nation’s only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to the present day.
I think that it is time to do some major altering.
But, let me sidetrack for just a minute. I live in Rockville, Maryland, where the city has been going through its own Confederate memorial crisis. On the grounds of the Red Brick Courthouse stands a Confederate Calvary private, a six-foot tall bronze figure standing on a granite base. In the aftermath of Charleston, and in unity with the protests against the Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner (New York City), and Freddie Gray (Baltimore, Maryland) indiscriminate deaths at the hands of whites, protesters spray painted the Rockville monument with “Black Lives Matter.” The statue now stands in uncertain territory, with the city and Montgomery County debating its future. Isiah Leggett, the first African American county executive, has said repeatedly that he wants the statue moved off the county courthouse grounds. The city has refused to take possession of the statue and its future care and protection. Advisors on the issue have discussed the options of moving it to a different site, storing it, or melting down the bronze and creating a new monument. Peerless Rockville, the local historic preservation organization, of which I have been a longtime member and volunteer, has advocated for keeping the statue in place and using waysides to educate visitors about its significance.
During the NCPH session on Confederate monuments, Ashley Whitehead Luskey advocated for waysides as a possible way to mediate these statues, allowing them to remain but with more information about their historical significance and present-day associations. Jill Ogline Titus advocated for counter-narratives to be displayed next to or even on top of the Confederate ones. Maybe have an evening art installation, Titus suggested, project images of Civil Rights protesters onto the granite base of a Confederate monument. In both cases, they argued that using the statues as educational tools had greater value than removal or even destruction.
But I keep looking UP at the Lee statue. I keep looking ACROSS the county courthouse square at the Confederate Cavalryman. And my sense of uncomfortableness, as a white middle-aged, middle-class woman, has no comparison to that of a black teenager or a black middle-aged, middle-class woman. These statues are meant to communicate political viewpoints, not just memorialize an archaic past. They have power that cannot be avoided or discounted.
And so, I struggle. I draw upon my professional background in history and my work in historic preservation. I grapple with significance and how important it really is to save the old versus creating the new. In a symposium on the National Park Service’s Centennial, held at the beginning of the NCPH annual meeting, one scholar wondered aloud if a new building may be more important to the health and vitality of a community than saving an old one. I extend this idea to the statues.
To equalize a landscape, to honor communities, to bring together people…for these reasons, I support intentional open discussions that may very well end with removal of many of these Confederate monuments. I believe that we need to document these pieces, just as is done to historic buildings and spaces. I also hope that public historians can assist, using our skills in historical research and our predilection for community activism. But, in the end, communities may very well decide that Robert E. Lee should no longer look down upon Monument Avenue, and its diverse population, any longer.