Monuments and the paradox of racial violence in Virginia

On October 11, 1919, the day of the Stonewall Jackson statue unveiling at the corner of Monument Avenue and Boulevard, the Richmond Planet ran an anti-lynching editorial cartoon on its front page.

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In that year, white mobs and vigilantes unleashed a spasm of violence upon black Americans, particularly toward black soldiers returning from the Great War. The cartoon signaled both the Planet’s participation in the nationwide campaign for a federal anti-lynching bill and the terrifying reality of lynching in the lives of black Americans. The Planet did not make mention of the Jackson monument and did not make a connection between the newly enlarged Confederate memorial landscape in Richmond and the nationwide lynching epidemic.

Many people since 1919 have perceived a connection.

Robert Leon Bacon, for instance, a black Richmonder, in a 1955 letter to the governor imagined Monument Avenue as a place where he might be “’lynched’ or beaten up or arrested or electrocuted.” More recently, one resident said that upon driving down Monument Avenue, “the thing that I saw on the sides were those huge trees and what I envisioned were bodies swinging from those trees… not literally, but the connective tissue,” between Monument Avenue and the history of slavery in Richmond.

Exploring the Planet’s indifference toward Jackson’s statue, its contemporaneous alarm about the very real experience of racial violence, and later connections between the two offers an opportunity to explore the ways that white supremacy worked in Jim Crow Virginia.

Confederate memorialists themselves were, indeed, part of a cultural and political movement that regarded emancipation as a tragedy and unmistakably promoted a narrative of racial difference in social and political life. But in planning documents that detail disagreements over artistic merits of the sculptors, in speeches that highlighted the military heroics of the men on the statues, and in reports of veterans enjoying the company of old comrades at monument unveilings, calls to direct racial violence cannot be found.

While racial lynching across the nation peaked in the late 1890s, the rate of recorded lynchings in Virginia between 1877 and 1950—84 according to the Equal Justice Initiative—steadily declined after 1889. The number of lynchings in Virginia—if not their threat and the trauma caused by them—had become negligible after 1904.

White mobs in states further south in the same years initiated appalling levels of violence, with Georgia recording 590 lynchings and Mississippi 654 in the same years. Lynching, by organized public mobs or by vigilantes in secret, served to police the movement and autonomy of black people. According to historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Virginia’s comparatively smaller number of reported lynchings reflected the state’s diverse economy, untethered to labor-intensive single crop agriculture like cotton, and a greater level of autonomy in black political and cultural life.

Most surprisingly, says Brundage, Virginia witnessed a decline in lynching in the 1890s because conservative Democrats in state government acted.

To be sure, conservative Virginians in the 1880s had countenanced racial violence in the suppression of the Readjuster movement and had not been particularly moved to confront lynching afterwards. Governors like Fitzhugh Lee (1886-1890), who served in office at the height of racial violence in Virginia, preferred the principal of weak central government to any desire to protect black citizens. In other states, politicians dismissed criticism of lynching as an affront to white supremacy—an untenable political position as segregation became entrenched in state governments across the south.

In 1894 Democrat Charles T. O’Farrell, an ex-Confederate and frequent participant in Confederate memorial activities, took the gubernatorial seat in Virginia at the height of nationwide social and political upheaval. The Populist movement—marked as dangerously radical by its opponents—surged in national elections; labor unions organized industry-wide strikes; the Depression of 1893 wrecked the economy, and thousands of unemployed men staged marches on Washington, D.C. as part of Coxey’s Army. In this larger environment of social turmoil, O’Ferrall readily dispatched the state militia to break strikes and drive off Coxey’s Army.

O’Ferrall considered lynching to be just another threat to social order that plagued Virginia in the early 1890s. After a high-profile attempted lynching in Roanoke resulted in a pitched battle between a white mob and city officials that forced the mayor to flee town, O’Ferrall acted to preserve governmental authority. He regularly dispatched militia to protect black prisoners, sent state agents to investigate local criminal proceedings, and used the bully pulpit of his office. “Christianity demands it,” he stated, “public morality requires it; popular sentiments exact it.” In 1895 O’Ferrall joined with John Mitchell, Jr., and violated conservative principles of local rule when he sent state militia to intervene in a Lunenburg County criminal proceeding that would have otherwise resulted in the lynching of three black women. O’Ferrall’s vigorous example set an expectation for state action to prevent racial violence that his successors struggled to meet when lynchings inevitably did occur.

That incidents of reported lynchings declined in Virginia as statues on Monument Avenue went up, coupled with the unexpected actions of Democrat party leaders in the 1890s, does not suggest that men like O’Ferrall could be counted as racial progressives. They remained paternalists at best and continued to build racial segregation into Virginia’s political system. Racial violence continued to be very real in the lives of black Virginians, even after 1904. Though it declined in Virginia, the threat, as the Planet suggested with its advocacy for a national anti-lynching bill, knew no state boundaries. Racial murders continued at epidemic rates across the nation well into the 1920s. The 1915 film Birth of a Nation glorified and linked racial violence and the Confederate cause.

Robert Leon Bacon may not have known about Charles O’Ferrall’s efforts, nor that no reported lynchings had taken place on Monument Avenue, but he did know that death possibly awaited him if he stepped into the wrong neighborhood.

Conservative leaders in Virginia—including the monument builders—did not act to squelch lynching in the 1890s from any humanitarian regard for African Americans. None left evidence that they were sympathetic to the anti-lynching campaign led by Ida B. Wells—a campaign that exposed the racist assumptions that justified lynching. None supported the proposed Federal anti-lynching bill for which the Planet advocated. They may not have noticed when Mary Church Terrell poked holes through the contradictions of the Lost Cause history of race relations that enabled violence. Instead, white Virginia elites acted solely to preserve the authority of their government and the stability of the social order.

White Virginians congratulated themselves for what they considered ideal race relations—a paternalistic inequality rooted in nostalgia for an imagined past of  black people happy in their subservience and white people bound by honor and duty, all made real in the 20th century in state law and called local custom. By the turn of the 20th century, white leaders put much more faith in criminal justice and carceral systems than in extra-legal violence to police black people. After the adoption of the 1902 Constitution, that deprived black voters of a direct voice in politics, the city of Richmond segregated its streetcars (1904) and the General Assembly permitted segregation in residential neighborhoods (1912).

The statues on Monument Avenue were no small part of white elites’ sense of their own honor and chivalry while Jim Crow flourished in Virginia.

 

Chris Graham1 Comment