Opinion: Time to tear them down

by | Oct 9, 2019 | ART

Tear Them Down

One hundred and fifty-two years ago, Richmond became the former capitol of a failed nation built upon a bedrock of suffering, shackles, and servitude. Today, statues memorializing its president and military officers cast the cold shadows of an inexplicably glorified history on the present day.

As many as seven hundred monuments to the Confederate States litter the streets and parks of the United States. Former Confederate cities choose to lower the flags, tear down the statues, and excise the landmarks that glorify a heritage of hatred. Now it’s Richmond’s turn to do the same.

Slavery is a part of Richmond’s history. Virginia was one of the first colonies to import African slaves; Richmond became one of the three hubs of the Southern slave trade; and our city became the capital of the Confederacy, a nation founded explicitly to protect the institution of slavery. This city has many streets, schools, and buildings named for Confederates. Monument Avenue stands out above them all with its statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury. Slavery is a part of Richmond’s history, and that cannot and should not be denied. Unless Richmond also chooses to celebrate its history of slavery, then first we must tear these statues down.

Like all monuments, the Confederate monuments are not merely historical facts in copper and stone– they are the graven images of historical persons literally elevated above us. Each figure has been molded into a stance of eternal dignity and placed on a pedestal. These statues are not meant to mark the history of our state, they are meant to celebrate the Confederacy. The Confederate monuments were raised between 1890, when Robert E. Lee’s statue was erected, to 1929, when Maury’s statue was added. These were the years when the myth of the Lost Cause was invented, the idea that the Confederacy fought for states’ rights. But the Lost Cause is myth, not history.

There is no more question as to what the Confederacy fought for. The secessionists didn’t fight for the abstract notion of states’ rights, but for the very concrete notion that people can and should be bought and sold as property.

If you doubt that, consider that slave-state representatives in Congress fought to take away the rights of the Northern states. When Northern states banned the passage of slaves through their territory, or gave refuge to fugitive slaves, Southern Congressmen tried to take those states’ rights away. The infamous Fugitive Slave Act that required all states to return runaway slaves cannot be squared with states’ rights [6].

The Confederates were not shy about this. For example, the state of Mississippi wrote in its declaration of secession that “[o]ur position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world” [7]. The Confederacy was always and only an institution for slavery.

Proponents of the statues claim that taking them down would be to rewrite history, to take history away. But we cannot rewrite history. Proponents of these statues claim that they celebrate “heritage, not hate.” Yet this heritage is hate. The Confederate flag represents a heritage that valorizes the plantation aristocracy and its soldiers. Southerners could instead celebrate the rebel slave or the Southern abolitionist. That is also Southern heritage, yet they have no monuments.

Richmond must be ashamed of its Confederate monuments. If you went to Russia and found a statue of Stalin, standing dignified and respectful, what would you think of the Russians? Would you say the Russians were remembering evil, or celebrating an authoritarian dictator? And when those statues came down during the de-Stalinization of the 1950’s, did the world claim the Soviets were erasing history? No, because we do not believe in dignifying a legacy of evil.

If we are to build monuments to the Confederacy, then the monuments must mourn its existence, not celebrate it. We maintain memorials like Auschwitz or Choeung Ek (for the killing fields in Cambodia) to remember and avoid the evil that humanity is capable of. In Richmond, the proposed monument and museum in Shockoe Bottom would memorialize the victims of, and the resistance to, the city’s slave trade [8]. Monument Avenue is not mournful. The statues of Monument Avenue are reverent and proud of the Confederate soldiers who defended the buying and selling of human beings.

The monument controversy has little to do with history. It’s about who we want to be today. Monuments to the Confederacy are celebrations of slavery. The city of Richmond, and the South itself, has the power to decide for ourselves who we want to be. Richmond is not only a former center of the slave trade and capital of the Confederacy. Richmond has also been the site of resistance to slavery and the struggle against segregation.

Who do we want to be? Do we want to stand with torches in the darkness of the shadows, side by side with white supremacists? Or will we devote ourselves to the freedom and equality of all people, and walk along streets free of old shadows?

It’s time to free Monument Avenue and tear down the monuments!

Alexander Sparrow is a writer and an organizer for the Richmond chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.





[4] Richmond alone has 8 monuments to Confederate officials, including two Jefferson Davis monuments, a Confederate soldiers and sailors monument, and monuments to its military officers, J.E.B. Stuart, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Stonewall Jackson, Williams Carter Wickham. J.E.B. Stuart also has an elementary school named after him, 92% of whose students are African-American. There is also a Confederate Avenue.




[6] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp

[7] A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union https://www.civilwar.org/learn/primary-sources/declaration-causes-seceding-states#Mississippi

[8] http://www.sacredgroundproject.net/p/blog-page.html

Landon Shroder

Landon Shroder

Landon is a foreign policy and communications professional from Richmond specializing in high risk and complex environments, spending almost fifteen years abroad in the Middle East and Africa. He hold’s a Master’s Degree from American University in Conflict Resolution and was a former journalist and producer for VICE Media. His writing on foreign affairs has been published in World Policy Journal, Chatham House, Small Wars Journal, War on the Rocks, and the Fair Observer, along with being a commentator in the New York Times on the Middle East.

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