Like UNC, VCU has its own Confederate memorial dedicated with explicitly white supremacist speech

By: - August 23, 2018 6:01 am
At the 1892 dedication of this Confederate memorial to the Howitzers Battalion, the keynote speaker focused not on valor, but a laying out a long justification and defense of slavery. The statue now sits on the edge of Virginia Commonwealth University's Monroe Park campus.

At the 1892 dedication of this Confederate memorial to the Richmond Howitzers Battalion, the keynote speaker focused not on valor, but laying out a long justification and defense of slavery. The statue now sits on the edge of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park campus.

Earlier this week, protesters on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tore down a long contested Confederate memorial dubbed “Silent Sam,” which was targeted in part for the explicitly white supremacist speech that marked its 1913 unveiling.

Confederate veteran Julian Carr extolled the Confederacy’s defense of the “Anglo-Saxon race” and bragged about horse-whipping “a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”

Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, it has been subsequently noted, has its own statue whose erection was celebrated with a white supremacist speech. In this case, it was a long-winded defense of slavery delivered by Leigh Robinson, who was celebrated in the next day’s newspaper as a “gifted orator” who defended the South “with ability and eloquence.”

“Slavery in the South, unlike Oriental bondage, Roman servitude, and feudal villainage, was not the subjection of equals, differing only in opportunity, but the subordination of one extreme of humanity to the other; of the most abject to the most enlightened,” Leigh told the audience. “The real inequality of the races had made subordination prescriptive.”

The statue, tucked between VCU’s Monroe Park campus and Richmond’s Fan District neighborhood, has drawn little notice compared to “Silent Sam,” which had been a subject of protest for decades.

The university, which acquired the statue and the small park around it in 1989, conducted an audit of Confederate symbols on campus after the white-supremacist rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee last year in Charlottesville that left dozens injured and killed Heather Heyer, but in Richmond, discussion and debate over Confederate symbols has focused on the five large memorials on Monument Avenue.

The explicit focus on defending slavery during the Howitzers dedication stands out compared to remarks on Monument Avenue, which tended to address themes of valor and honor, said Christopher Graham, a historian and guest curator at the American Civil War Museum, in an email.

“Leigh Robinson’s speech is a bit unusual, but it’s perfectly on-message for the Lost Cause. It’s true, the keynote speakers at the five statues to former Confederates on Monument Avenue itself never mentioned slavery or race, but instead focused on defining the Christian and martial virtues of the men on those monuments. Of course, with hundreds of memorials erected over the course of a generation, each one was bound to be fitted to place, context and proclivities of the speakers.

Graham said unveiling speeches tended to focus “on themes of duty and sacrifice, honor and national reconciliation,” though some did dwell on justifying slavery.

“Robert Cave claimed in his speech at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument (on Libby Hill) in 1894 that southerners ‘believed that the immediate and wholesale emancipation of the slaves would be ruinous to the whites and blacks alike; and that, under the then-existing conditions, the highest interests of both themselves and the colored wards committed to their keeping demanded that the relation of master and servant should continue.’ And of course Julian Carr’s notorious aside in Chapel Hill is now deservedly well known.”

Whether a direct comparison to Carr’s remarks is fair, though, is a different question, Graham said. While Carr’s remarks were off-the-cuff and uniquely violent and misogynistic, Robinson’s remarks fit neatly into academic debate at the time “perpetuating what Bryan Stevenson has called a “narrative of racial difference,” that justified the continued subordination of black men and women to white men and women in relationships defined by paternalism, marginalization, and disenfranchisement — even if he didn’t explicitly mention the then-current efforts to marginalize and disempower black men,” he noted.

VCU spokesman Michael Porter said that the university “is committed to having a campus-wide conversation about how best to proceed.

“Additional sessions will be scheduled and a full-day symposium to further discuss the issue is being planned for November as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of VCU,” he added.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.