Vulnerability and a Truer Democracy


Julian Maxwell Hayter is a historian and Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Dr. Hayter is the author of The Dream is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. He is also a member of the Monument Avenue Commission.

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. The Lost Cause also helped guarantee that black vulnerability would outlive segregation itself—that vulnerability also grounds these discussions.

As Southern cities grapple with the contemporary implications of past racism, the disparities between historical truth, historical interpretation, and mythology have become more apparent. The story of Monument Avenue is, in large part, a twentieth century dilemma—most of the monuments were built in the twentieth century (except Lee’s statue--1890). The reimagination of the avenue has, however, become embroiled in contemporary culture wars. The resurgence of white supremacy not only shattered the myth of a post-racial America; it caused people to question the utility of public Confederate symbolism. Yet, had America come to terms with the actual legacy of Jim Crow segregation, we, quite possibly, would not be entangled in these disputes at all.

Monument Avenue is not just a collection of war memorials; it also epitomizes the un-democratic face of segregation. There was no popular mandate for the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. Richmond’s all-white city council was instrumental in extending the avenue in the early twentieth century. Local politicians also had help from Virginia’s lily-white General Assembly. In fact, when it came to the matter of monuments and public discourse in the twentieth century, African Americans had no official voice—after 1902, poll taxes robbed 80 percent of black Virginians and 50 percent of whites of the right to vote.

While many Confederate statues were funded by private money, their placement (and maintenance) was made possible by white over-representation on Southern governing bodies. As I have noted elsewhere, “Monument Avenue is but one example of the fiendishly covetous ways Southern politicians and profiteers used racial identity, urban development and Confederate memory to cement their own economic and political power.” Before its construction in 1890, Virginia’s governor, Fitzhugh Lee, not only refused to build the Lee statue on the capital grounds, he openly referred to Monument Avenue as a “plain business proposal.” After 1902, segregationists crafted laws that made altering and/or removing monuments extremely difficult. To this day, thanks in part to decades of de facto residential segregation, the General Assembly is still largely white and has remained antithetical to the notion of removing or altering monuments. 

Because African Americans were systematically excluded from official decision-making until 1965, Monument Avenue cannot be separated from the politics of Jim Crow. If paternalism and oligarchy were partly responsible for the construction of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, they also were instrumental in reinforcing the idea of black second-class citizenship for most of the twentieth century.

To be sure, Monument Avenue is but one of Richmond’s many artifacts to Jim Crow. By the mid-twentieth century, segregationist politicians and profiteers not only used the power vested in state and local governments to secure their own political and economic power; they did the bare minimum for black enclaves. While the city readily paid for paving, curbing, and lighting Monument Avenue, many of Richmond’s black neighborhoods were literally toxic. Before the mid-twentieth century, local officials placed many of the city’s garbage dumps in or around Jackson Ward. These were the very men that also failed to install proper sewage systems in the black sectors of Church Hill until the late 1950s. By the 1970s, segregationists ensured that African American public schools were overcrowded, underfunded, and overwhelmingly impoverished. The urban policies of the mid-twentieth century also sacrificed already-vulnerable black enclaves at the altar of modernity. Expressway construction, slum clearance, and downtown development finished what real estate developers started with Monument Avenue—systematic neglect. By the 1980s, Richmond was more segregated by class and race than it was in the 1940s.

This vulnerability had grave implications for twenty-first century Richmond. Thousands of people that have recently relocated to neighborhoods historically inhabited by black Americans have encountered a brand of vulnerability that segregationists would rather we forget. This so-called “Great Inversion” has also helped reignite interest in the exclusionary politics of the last century.

Monument Avenue showcases the types of public symbols that emerge in the absence of democracy, and as a truer democracy emerged after the 1960s, those public symbols became inadequate. Historical actors used the power vested in government to bring their biases to bear on public space. Our generation too brings its biases to bear on this process. And, in most cases, over six decades of sound historical research and literature have influenced these preconceptions. We know now, thanks to the histories that emerged in the wake of the American civil rights movement, that Lost Causism was mythology posing as history. So, this generation arrives again at the question of Confederate memorialization—it does so, like the freedom struggle itself, in the spirit of inclusivity, truth, and reconciliation.

Join the Museum at the final History Happy Hour of the season, Monument Avenue, Shockoe Bottom, and Richmond's Commemorative Landscapethis Monday.