Just one year shy of New Orleans’ tercentennial, in 2017 then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered a poignant speech explaining the reasoning behind the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The likeness was the last of four Confederate monuments taken down after multiple lawsuits and heated protests.
The Confederate iconography fell as the Big Easy was grappling with how it wanted to define itself in the aftermath of a series of heavy blows, both natural and financial, including the devastating Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill and the Great Recession.
Amid the rebuilding process, New Orleans had the opportunity to confront its racist past and decide how it would look over the next 300 years.
It was time for choosing, Landrieu said, “to actually make this the city we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place. We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves, at this point in our history … if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces, would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?”
No, it wasn’t for New Orleans. And it shouldn’t be for Richmond.
Nearly all of Richmond’s public monuments paying tribute to the heroes of the Lost Cause no longer stand, removed by the city or forcibly toppled since protests erupted after the Memorial Day brutal killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
What message does Richmond want to impart through its public spaces, especially as it approaches its 300th anniversary in 2037?
While the four years Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy undeniably are part of its history, they shouldn’t define the city.
The city’s best-known Confederate statue, the six-story memorial to Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, continues to pulsate as the protest epicenter. The fate of the state-owned statue remains in legal limbo as a Richmond judge decides whether it can come down.
Across the state and nation, these divisive symbols—whether in the form of bronze, building signage or street names—now are being shelved 155 years after Lee surrendered to Union forces at Appomattox Court House.
After years of emotional debate, the Hanover County School Board finally listened and dropped the contentious names of Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
Overnight Thursday, at the order of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, a statue of Lee and busts portraying Rebel leaders—including Confederate President Jefferson Davis—were removed from the old House chamber inside the Virginia State Capitol.
“Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants,” Filler-Corn said in a statement. “The Confederacy’s primary objective in the Civil War was to preserve an ideology that maintained the enslavement of human beings. Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the commonwealth’s whole history.”
How does Richmond, looking ahead into the 21st century, want to tell its story?
Was the violent toppling of statues the best way to remove them? No.
Did city officials show leadership in stopping the violent protests that ravaged downtown? No.
Is it time for the community to come together and create a unifying vision for the city’s public spaces, tapping into the deep creativity of Richmond’s vibrant cultural and educational institutions? Yes.
Symbols carry powerful messages. This isn’t just about re-envisioning one grand boulevard in the city. This isn’t about erasing history. It’s about providing a full narrative of the capital city’s storied past and how it wants to be perceived. What does Richmond want to be?
The removal of these symbols of pain and oppression hasn’t resolved the city’s many daunting challenges, chief among them schools, affordable housing and public safety. How will the city use this opportunity to create unity and focus on these pressing problems?
As Landrieu presciently said three years ago, “If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society, this would have all been in vain.”
We agree, and hope Richmond and the community steps up and creates meaningful change for the better.