The Monument Avenue Commission, tasked with evaluating the fate of the statuary on Monument Avenue, held its first public community meeting since its contentious, chaotic first meeting last summer. The meeting proceeded relatively peacefully despite two sets of outbursts from pro-monument attendees, with the first occurring near the halfway point of the night and a second at the end.
After a series of presentations by commission members, pro-monument attendees interrupted commission co-chair Greg Kimball from the Library of Virginia, who was sharing historical documents on the construction of Confederate monuments and the root causes of the Civil War.
He’d just finished explaining inaccuracies in the Lost Cause narrative which minimizes the role of slavery in secession, pointing to records of secession voting sessions where slavery was referenced 512 times and states rights only 29. “I think that says something,” Kimball said, making the case that the South seceded over slavery, a statement widely accepted as fact due to the overwhelming preponderance of accepted historical evidence.
It was after this that shouts from pro-monument attendees briefly broke out with one man yelling, “were Union monuments built during Jim Crow too?” Amid the noise, another man, who seemed to be trying to quiet the pro-monument disruptors, yelled, “can you let the man talk please, we didn’t come here for this.”
Much of the meeting was occupied by the presentation of statistics detailing who was present, who gave feedback, and what that feedback has looked like up until this point. Among the findings: 84.5% of respondents favor a change with only 15.5% asking to keep Monument Avenue unchanged. Of those who wanted change, 26.8% favored adding context but leaving the current monuments, 28.5% for relocation, and 20% for removal without relocation.
Commission co-chair Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, explained that they were collecting the data to help present the community vision for Monument Avenue. She said, “The monument commission feels that it is not their role to make the decision about what to do with the monuments, it is to hear what the community wants to do so that that recommendation can be passed on.”
When it came to public commentary, a majority of speakers spoke against the statues in 2-minute time slots based on the order they queued up.
The first speaker identified himself as being from New Kent County before saying he’d be quick, adding, “I’m tired, I’m hungry, I have to go to the restroom, and I’m on the clock.” He spoke in favor of context, but wanted to see statues to the black soldiers who fought for the Union near Richmond, instead of more contemporary figures or people already honored by statues.
After telling the commission he didn’t envy their position, another speaker suggested that Richmond was “too emotional” to have the discussion. “Maybe we should reach out to places around the world that have had this discussion, like South Africa, Germany, or South Korea,” he said, noting that they’d had to deal with similar questions.
The first man to speak for the statues said they were to “great men” who “struggled, fought and died to defend their country,” before comparing the Civil War to the American Revolution.
A woman who also rose to defend the statues claimed that they were about love, not hate, and invoked her race when she said, “I didn’t know that if you’re white you have a certain amount of time to put up a statue.” She added, “They’re taking my statues down but y’all are letting them put their statues up all the time.”
A man who started by saying he hadn’t prepared to speak called on the commission to keep the statues and not change the city. He described Richmond as “not a city of the future, it is a city of the past. It was the Capital of the Confederacy.” In a fast-paced conclusion, he made the counterfactual claim of the Lost Cause narrative that men “fought not for slavery but for states rights.”
A later speaker addressed his claim without naming him by reciting the conclusion to the Cornerstone Speech of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, in which he stated that the Confederacy was founded upon the idea that the white man was superior.
Former school board member Mamie Taylor spoke against the statues, telling the story of her grandmother, Mary McLeod Bethune, who was born to parents who’d been enslaved. After talking about her ancestors, she addressed proponents of the monuments, asking how they would feel “if someone raped, murdered, castrated your grandmother, and then placed a picture of that monstrous person on your living room wall.” She said that feeling is “what I feel like when I have to drive up and down Monument Avenue on an almost daily basis.”
One of the last speakers was former City Council Member Marty Jewell, who asked for a truth and reconciliation process in the city before further discussion of the monuments. He also addressed an undercurrent that’s surrounded the process, asking why people who don’t live in the city were included.
Several of the pro-monument attendees were affiliated with the Virginia Flaggers, a pro-Confederacy organization that organized to support the statues. On Facebook, members advised out-of-town supporters to lie about their address, suggesting they use the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts street address so they could leave a comment, something restricted to people who work or reside in the city.
As the meeting ended, Coleman thanked attendees. As she detailed the next community meeting to be held at Martin Luther King, Jr., High School on May 19, a Saturday, at 10 a.m., followed by a commission work session the same day in City Hall at 6 p.m., one of the men sitting with the Flaggers interrupted her, yelling, “Why isn’t the mayor here?”
Continuing to talk over the co-chair, the man blamed the mayor for the commission and insisted that he needed to be at the meetings.
Keeping her composure, Coleman finished thanking the attendees before she told the man to take it up with the mayor’s office as she adjourned the meeting.
Cover Photo by Landon Shroder