The future of memorials to Virginia’s dark history, on one of Richmond’s most iconic streets, is still out of the city’s hands. Following a 6-3 vote by Richmond City Council, the chamber rejected a resolution to request greater control of the statuary on Monument Avenue from the state government.
“I’m baffled by the notion of us not being willing to address matters like these, and shirk our responsibilities,” said 9th District Councilman Michael Jones, at the start of discussions on the resolution. Jones, the resolution’s patron, voted with 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson and Council Vice President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th district to approve the measure.
“We can only move this city forward by having the right to decide,” Jones said. “We cannot be afraid to tackle the tough decisions of our day, because they will go nowhere. We must decide if we’re going to be one Richmond or remain divided,” said Jones.
Jones’ statement set the tone for over an hour of deliberation between councilmembers and public speakers. In the half-filled City Council room, speakers were occasionally spirited, but mostly measured in their approach.
“I think this is my fourth time down here, both at the committee level and city council,” said Bill Thomas, at the start of his public comments in opposition to the resolution. Thomas’ comments were a brief acknowledgement of the long series of events that led councilmembers to this point, and almost certainly they are far from the last.
The vote last night was a near-repeat of a similar measure last year, rejected 6-2 with Newbille abstaining. This new resolution came with new support, however, in the form of Mayor Levar Stoney, who made an appearance during the meeting’s start to introduce a bill calling for greater funding from the Virginia General Assembly for Richmond’s schools.
That bill, which would be expedited and approved by the council later in the meeting, proved to be one of a few recent developments used by councilmembers in their arguments against against Jones’ resolution.
2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray drew attention to the poor state of Richmond’s schools in explaining her opposition to the proposal, arguing that this issue and the General Assembly’s involvement was a more pressing concern than gaining greater autonomy over city structures.
“The biggest monuments to white supremacy are in our schools,” said Gray. “If we don’t change how we’re operating, nothing will change for the condition of the people of color in our city,” a sentiment echoed by 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell.
Their votes rejecting the proposal were also joined by councilmembers Andreas Addison from the 1st district, Kristen Larson from the 4th district, Parker Agelasto from 5th district, and Council President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd district.
This reasoning was later challenged by Jones, Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras, and Stoney himself, who described the process as indicative of a “culture of can’t” on Twitter following the vote.
“We can support choosing our own destiny about the future of Confederate monuments in our city AND advocate for the state to fund the true cost of public education. This was not a either/or proposition,” wrote Stoney.
Councilmembers also negatively pointed to the differences between Jones’ resolution and the recommendations made by Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission. The commission, created in 2017, was in response to events following the white supremacist pro-Confederate Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which left one counter-protester dead and over 30 wounded.
The 10-person Commission’s 115-page report, released in July, recommended the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue, along with efforts to re-contextualize the statuary, following months of private and public discussion. Addison and Gray also served as members of the commission.
Newbille disputed this interpretation, pointing out that while Jones’ resolution implies more than the Davis statue would come under the Council’s oversight, “it doesn’t say remove them.”
“This paper allows this council, this local government, to have authority in the dispositions of monuments and statues. For me, that is a responsibility this city and this city council should have,” said Newbille.
Jones’ legislation wasn’t the only one with a focus on how Richmond should handle the reminders of Virginia’s ugly history. Also introduced for future consideration was legislation submitted by Stoney that would establish the Richmond History and Culture Commission. This focus would include “providing guidance on the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission regarding the reinterpretation of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.”
The legislation will likely be part of the City Council’s agenda in their next meeting on November 13.
As the meeting prepared for the council vote, Hilbert acknowledged a changing cultural “mood” in the U.S. that has seen other Confederate memorials removed or destroyed, remarking that regardless of the council’s decision on Jones’ resolution, Monument Avenue won’t remain the same forever.
“I was poisoned by the Lost Cause version of the Civil War,” said Hilbert, “and it’s wrong, the Civil War was about slavery. I do think that in 50 years these statues won’t be here.”
*Photos by George Copeland