Richmond mayor: Keep Confederate statues, but add context

Published: Jun. 22, 2017 at 4:59 PM EDT
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The towering Confederate monuments in Virginia's capital city shouldn't be taken down, but instead should be supplemented with historical context about why they were built, Richmond's mayor said Thursday.

"Whether we like it or not, they are part of our history of this city, and removal would never wash away that stain," Mayor Levar Stoney said.

Instead, a commission of historians, authors and community leaders will solicit public input and make suggestions about how to "set the historical record straight" on the monuments in the former capital of the Confederacy, he announced at a news conference.

It's titled the Monument Avenue Commission, and has a website to solicit public input, which you can find


"Equal parts myth and deception, they were the 'alternative facts' of their time — a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago — not only to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy," the mayor said.

Stoney's announcement comes as many cities across the South engage in bitter debates over Confederate symbols, prompted in part by the 2015 shooting of nine black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church by an avowed white supremacist. Opponents say the monuments are offensive relics of the region's racist past, while supporters call them a part of history that should be preserved.

Richmond's five Confederate statues are prominent fixtures on Monument Avenue, a wide thoroughfare lined with churches and historic mansions considered by many to be the city's most prestigious address and one of the nation's loveliest thoroughfares. Likenesses of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, President Jefferson Davis and oceanographer Matthew Maury are perched on large stone pedestals.

Stoney, who is African-American, took office in December as the youngest mayor ever elected in Richmond. Before that, he worked for Gov. Terry McAuliffe as Secretary of the Commonwealth, a cabinet position with duties including processing the restoration of voting and civil rights for felons.

He said he's personally insulted by the monuments and wishes they had never been built.

"I think we should consider what Monument Avenue would look like with a little more diversity," he said.

The city has made one such effort already: A statue of black tennis champion Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was added in 1996, provoking a nationally publicized and racially charged dispute. Its dedication drew white protesters, including one who raised a Confederate flag.

The commission will hold public hearings and will consider adding new monuments, Stoney said. He suggested that commissioners might also consider adding explanatory signage, similar to those that now appear in national parks.

His announcement comes as many other cities across the South engage in bitter debates over symbols of the Confederacy.

New Orleans recently removed three statues with Confederate figures and one monument to white supremacy. City workers in Orlando removed statue of "Johnny Reb" on Tuesday, to be relocated to a cemetery. Tampa officials decided Wednesday to keep a statue of Civil War soldiers, but add a mural displaying "love and diversity."

In Baltimore, where the former mayor put up signs calling its Confederate statues propaganda designed to support racial intimidation, the new mayor now hopes to remove the monuments and auction them off.

And tempers have run hot in Charlottesville, about an hour west of Richmond, where the city council voted earlier this year to remove a Lee statue, despite their mayor's preference for adding historical context instead.

A torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer protested the decision at a rally in May, and the Ku Klux Klan has announced a rally for July.

Richmond is different than other cities because it has been working for decades to "diversify its landscape" and tell more of its stories, said Christy Coleman, CEO of Richmond's American Civil War Museum, who will serve as a co-chairwoman of the commission.

Still, she said, "We believe wholeheartedly that there is still more work to do."

In response to the mayor's announcement, the Virginia Flaggers released the following statement:

"Earlier today, the city of Richmond announced the formation of a “Monument Avenue Commission” to “help the city redefine the false narrative of the Confederate statues that line Richmond’s grandest Boulevard”. The Virginia Flaggers are extremely disappointed that Richmond’s newly elected Mayor, Levar Stoney, has chosen to make war against the Confederate monuments that line Monument Avenue in Richmond and against the thousands of descendants of Confederate Veterans that they represent and honor, diverting precious resources and taxpayer money away from the real and pressing matters facing the Capital of the Confederacy, and creating division and disharmony in our community. Thankfully, the Commonwealth has a law that protects ALL war memorials, and also prevents them from being altered. Following the lead of disgraced New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Mayor Stoney has chosen to tow the PC line of the NAACP and SPLC, who have promoted the false narrative that our monuments and memorials are somehow tied to “racism, slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy.” This false narrative has gained traction with the left, who has successfully used it to convince politicians to take up their cause of attempting to remove every trace of the Confederacy from public view. Mr. Stoney appears to have caved to their pressure. Poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of citizens of the Commonwealth oppose any removal or altering of War Memorials, and across Virginia, politicians who have supported such nonsense have consistently been voted out of office or lost their bid for election. Our monuments and memorials need no new “narrative” or “context” added to them, especially one based on the PC false narrative of the NAACP and SPLC. Their meaning is carved in stone and has absolutely nothing to do with “racism, slavery, Jim Crow, or white supremacy”, and everything to do with honoring men who answered the call of the Commonwealth to defend hearth and home from invasion. The Virginia Flaggers stand ready to vigorously defend these monuments, and the men they represent, from any and all destruction, removal, and/or alteration, and support for our Cause gains momentum with every petty attempt like this one where a politician looks to make a name for himself and gain political points with a very small percentage of their electorate. Mayor Stoney would do well to look to Charlottesville, where City Council voted to destroy the Robert E. Lee monument, in violation of state law, and in the process plunged the city into chaos and racial division that locals say is unlike any they have seen in decades. Of the three councilmen who voted to remove the monument, disgraced Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy has lost his teaching position with Albermarle County and his position on the State Board of Education, Kristen Szakos has announced she will not run for re-election, and Bob Fenwick, who cast the deciding vote, recently lost his bid for his party’s nomination for his council seat. True diversity and inclusiveness is not achieved by destroying the history of one group of people, in order to appease the demands of another."

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