Red paint covers the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond's Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 4, 2018)
Red paint covers the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond's Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 4, 2018)

The first time I moved to Richmond, in 2002, this city was a very different place in many ways, with the brewery and culinary explosion of today just a gleam in the eyes of people looking farther ahead than many of us at the time.

That year, 83 people were murdered here, a figure that would surge to 95 two years later, the highest of the past 20 years.

Vast portions of the city, including now bustling parts of Broad Street, were boarded up and dark at night. The city’s population had bottomed out at about 198,000 in 2000. (Last year, it was estimated to have rebounded to more than 227,000).

Against that background of urban decay, Richmond’s Confederate monuments seemed to me then like things out of Miss Havisham’s ruined garden in “Great Expectations:” long-irrelevant, sepulchral relics of folly, tarnished vanity and faded glory.

Of course, I was wrong.

Monuments are symbols of what societies deem worthy of commemorating and celebrating in our public spaces. And as we have learned, painfully, these statues of long-dead generals — the champions of a cause that Ulysses S. Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” — still hold tremendous power.

A Charlottesville judge has ruled that statues of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are in fact war memorials, a designation that prevents the city, per state law, from removing them. The decision stems from a suit against the Charlottesville City Council, which voted to remove the Lee statue, drawing the attention of the white nationalists who organized the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in 2017.

“I find this conclusion inescapable,” Circuit Judge Richard E. Moore wrote, according to The Daily Progress. “It is the very reason the statues have been complained about from the beginning. It does no good pretending they are something other than what they actually are.”

The decision will shift focus back to the GOP-controlled General Assembly, which has all seats in both chambers up for election this year. The legislature has defeated previous attempts to give localities the ability to move monuments, most recently in a House subcommittee during the last session, when descendants of Jackson and Lee also urged the General Assembly  to cease tributes to the generals.

And Gov. Ralph Northam, who backed moving the monuments during his campaign, then favored allowing localities to address them, then forgot about them after he got elected, has rediscovered the issue since his blackface debacle, to an extent.

Though he pledged to “take a harder line” on Confederate statues in February, he has, so far, ignored a request from the Virginia ACLU to use executive authority to move Lee’s statue from state property on Monument Avenue.

I am not without some sympathy for the people who feel threatened by the push to take down these monuments, because it is a natural thing to want to believe the best of your ancestors and easy to understand how misinformation about the Lost Cause was instilled in generations of schoolchildren in the South and elsewhere. (For a first-person look at “unlearning” about the Confederacy, see this piece by retired Virginia journalist Rex Springston).

But a century or more of whitewashing cannot change what the Confederacy was, a reality that, despite their polemics about preserving history, the pro-monument, “heritage-not-hate” crowd often prefers to sidestep.

The leaders of the brief attempt to establish a separate slaveholding republic in the South made no bones about what they were doing and why. So attempts to continue to obfuscate the true nature of the endeavor are either the work of the clueless or the malicious (sometimes both at once, I suppose).

“Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens told a crowd in Georgia. “That slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

In its secession ordinance, Virginia wrote that the federal government had “perverted” its powers, “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slaveholding states.”

And Mississippi was even more explicit: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.

“These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

That’s the nation the monument men fought to create and preserve, and the reckoning on whether they deserve to be in public spaces is long overdue.

Historians, including several African-American scholars, told me back in 2017, before “Unite the Right,” that removing monuments was a thorny decision, with some noting that the statues themselves tell a story about the failure of Reconstruction and the triumph of the Lost Cause.

“As a historian, normally I would say provide history surrounding the establishment of the monuments, provide counter-monuments,” said Kidada Williams, an associate professor of African-American history at Wayne State University in Detroit. “And if the community is willing to tolerate counter-monuments, then let the Confederate monuments stay. But if they’re not, then maybe putting them in a museum might be a good idea. It will be interesting to see what Richmond does.”

What the community is “willing to tolerate” should be the province of cities and counties and the people they’ve elected to represent them as mayors, county supervisors or council members, not a handful of General Assembly members in a cramped committee room.

Previous articleVirginia Explained: How Virginia’s history textbooks are vetted
Next article‘The president and I use different language:’ Partisan gulf on Mueller report widens
Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.