Meaning Always Changes on Monument Avenue

When Dylann Roof, an admirer of Confederate iconography and racist ideology, murdered nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, the resulting calls to reconsider Confederate memorials coalesced a wide number of historical trends—some as old as the Civil War itself, and some as new as the Black Lives Matter movement. The historians in our roundtable all agreed that the present moment—whether long-incubated or a reaction to current events—questions the ability of Confederate monuments to stand as symbols of civic and social unity in a diverse democracy.

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Chris GrahamComment
Undercurrents of Opposition and the Catalyst for Change

On May 23, 2011, the local Confederate monument in Reidsville, North Carolina was smashed to pieces when a sleepy van driver plowed into its base, knocking the statue to the ground. This was not a deliberate act of iconoclasm, not a political call to arms. But after the statue was destroyed, the city government and the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided not to restore it to its location at the center of town.

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Vulnerability and a Truer Democracy

Malcolm Gladwell once argued that monuments—all monuments— represent something that people take seriously. For well over a century, Americans have imagined and reimagined Confederate monuments—they have been, and continue to be, celebrated by some and detested by others. It is difficult to separate the current debates surrounding Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia from the racial animus of the last several years. 

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Consistency and Change

As communities grapple with the place of Confederate monuments in our society, looking at the people and groups who protested these monuments provides insight into how our ideas about these monuments developed. People spoke out in southern communities and on the national stage, when the monuments were first proposed and through the twentieth century.  Sometimes only an individual or small group spoke out and their actions were seemingly forgotten. Few protests gained any traction. However, protests can help us understand the environment in which we debate these monuments today. 

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When Sally Met Dali: Richmond Contemplates the Future of Monument Avenue

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney created the Monument Avenue Commission in June 2017 to provide context for the Confederate statues that he believes offer a distorted picture of Richmond’s history. Stoney asked the Commission to explain “the monuments that currently exist,” and “to look into and solicit public opinion on changing the face of Monument Avenue by adding new monuments that would reflect a broader, more inclusive story of our city.”

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"An Avenue For All People": How Arthur Ashe Came to Monument Avenue

“Richmond is known as a city of monuments. And the marquee street for monuments is Monument Avenue,” declared Richmond sportswriter Paul Woody in a 1995 column. “But the unfortunate impression left on some by the statues is that the street is reserved for Confederate leaders and Matthew Fontaine Maury. This impression should be changed. What better way to bring about change than by having a statue of [Arthur] Ashe on the city’s grandest boulevard?”

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Throbbing with memories: Monument Avenue and civic life in early 20th Century Richmond

Within the last few months, Richmonders have used Monument Avenue as a base, and a target, for civil protest. The Coalition for Accountability, for instance, marched from the Lee Monument to Shockoe Bottom, site of Richmond’s slave markets, to advocate for school reform, LGBQT rights, and the removal of Confederate statues. In doing so, they recognized the value of Richmond’s history and commemorative landscape as central to public life. Though with different outcomes in mind, they also carried on a tradition began, in part, by the monument builders themselves.

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Chris GrahamComment