‘A more complete story’: Push to honor black soldiers on Richmond’s Monument Avenue gathers steam

By: - March 10, 2020 12:01 am

Company E, of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, is pictured at Fort Lincoln in Washington, D.C. The regiment fought at the Battle of New Market Heights outside of Richmond. (Library of Congress)

Powhatan Beaty was born enslaved in Richmond. He fought for freedom just outside the city in the final days of the Civil War.

Soon he, along with other black Union soldiers, could be commemorated on Monument Avenue, in the former capital of the Confederacy, alongside statues of the slaveholders who lost.

Beaty is one of 14 African-American veterans who received the Medal of Honor for guiding and rallying their comrades, then known as the United States Colored Troops, in the Battle of New Market Heights. A group of politicians and historians are pushing to see them memorialized on a road that divides Richmond.

And as the city considers putting a new monument up, state legislators have moved to make it easier for localities to take others down.

On the foggy morning of Sept. 29, 1864, Beaty and his comrades crossed the James River and advanced uphill towards rebel fortifications that ran along what’s now Route 5 in Henrico County. The terrain was difficult and littered with trees the Confederates had cut down as obstacles for the Union troops. The relatively inexperienced USCTs were up against brigades of seasoned veterans. 

“The slaughter from Confederate lines was just absolutely brutal,” said Michael Knight, a specialist in 19th century African American military history and archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. 

Bodies fell fast, becoming yet another barrier on the bloodied field. But soldiers like Beaty, a sergeant, rallied their exhausted comrades — his Medal of Honor citation says he “took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it” — and kept the flag flying. That was major in the 19th century, Knight said, because the colors functioned not only as a symbol, but also as a transmitter, much like the radio that came decades later.  

Medal of Honor recipient Powhatan Beaty, a veteran of the Battle of New Market Heights, grew up enslaved in Richmond. (Library of Congress)

By the end of the Battle of New Market Heights, Confederate forces had conceded the territory to the USCTs. Less than seven months later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. 

Though historians debate the significance of the battle from a tactical standpoint, few argue that it marked a turning point for African Americans.

“This was the opening salvo. This was the fight for civil rights. The [U.S.] Colored Troops were up to the challenge,” Knight said. 

Knight is part of a group that’s set out to change the enduring Lost Cause narrative in Richmond by building the first statue of black Civil War veterans on Monument Avenue. The road is a National Historic Landmark lined with five Confederate memorials built in the Jim Crow era. 

Joining Knight on the board of the Honor the 14 Foundation is Richmond City Councilwoman Kim Gray, whose district includes part of Monument Avenue. In December 2019, Gray proposed a resolution to enlist support for the initiative from Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration. 

“Those troops won Medals of Honor for their valor and it was a very significant battle in the Civil War. … It’s appropriate to honor our troops, and Union soldiers, I think, are an interesting twist to Monument Avenue,” said Gray, who also announced last month that she would challenge Stoney in the mayoral election this fall.

Her colleagues in City Council unanimously approved the measure in January.

The resolution also asks Stoney to allocate $5,000 for start-up costs, a number that Gray said would reflect a symbolic blessing from the city. The project is expected to cost approximately $5 to 10 million.

Commemorating formerly enslaved people and black veterans was among the recommendations made by the Monument Avenue Commission in 2018. The group was formed at the behest of Stoney in June 2017, two years after a white supremacist who embraced symbols of the Confederacy massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. 

The recommendations came less than a year after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where white nationalists waving the rebel flag protested the city’s motion to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was there that a domestic terrorist mowed down a group of counter-protesters and murdered Heather Heyer. 

The commission also advised the city to remove or relocate the Jefferson Davis monument, noting that it is “the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment.”

George Washington Custis Lee (1832–1913) on horseback in front of the Jefferson Davis Monument in Richmond on June 3, 1907, reviewing a Confederate reunion parade. (Library of Congress)

In Virginia, it is illegal for localities to take down war memorials. Earlier this year, the Richmond City Council approved a measure asking the state legislature for jurisdiction of monuments located on city property. Charlottesville attempted to remove two Confederate statues, but a state judge ruled against it in 2019. 

During the General Assembly session this year, lawmakers granted localities more authority over the monuments across the state, paving the way for Richmond politicians eager to make a change. 

Gray stresses that the “Honor the 14″ statue would be neither a prequel to removal nor a replacement.

Adding monuments to Monument Avenue tells a more complete story,” she said. “There has to be a balance because we don’t want to erase history.”

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

Another proposal comes from Virginia Beach, where the Historic Preservation Commission recommended contextualizing a Confederate memorial with a public park and counterbalancing it with a statue, sculpture or artwork that commemorates African American heritage.

Some say paying tribute to black history isn’t enough to bring justice to those who feel pain and offense when faced with the likeness of slaveholders.

Joseph Rogers is a Civil War educator and activist with Monumental Justice. He is also a descendant of James A. Fields, who was born into slavery and went on to become commonwealth’s attorney and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates after the war. 

Rogers commends the proposed monument to black Union soldiers, but said it’s wrong to juxtapose oppressors with the oppressed. “It does run the risk of creating a dangerous moral equivalency” between the causes for which the men fought, he explains. (Rogers is also the education program manager at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond but stressed he was speaking for himself, not the museum.)

“We’re talking about the leaders of the Confederacy,” he said. “The men who were directing the armies which, had they been successful, would have expanded the institution of slavery.”

There’s a long way to go before Richmond memorializes black Civil War veterans on Monument Avenue. The city has to sign off on the proposed location, currently slated for a median between Strawberry and Allison Streets, about two blocks west of the Robert E. Lee statue. If they get the green light, the Honor the 14 Foundation will conduct a search for an artist and design, which must also get approval from the city. Then there is the matter of raising millions of dollars. 

The process could take years, but the effort to commemorate a battle that some describe as “forgotten” is a worthwhile cause, Knight said.  

“This is about the question of what is the place and role of African Americans in society and African American history.”

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Cat Modlin-Jackson
Cat Modlin-Jackson

Cat Modlin-Jackson is a freelance journalist and radio reporter based in Richmond. Though originally from Virginia, she's also lived in Tampa, Fla. and Houston, where she covered politics for local publications. Contact her at [email protected]