The Charlottesville anniversary and the Monument Avenue commission report

We approach the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville which left one dead, over thirty injured, and a nation scarred and seared. The purported prompt to the rally was the city’s decision to remove its Robert E. Lee equestrian monument (erected in 1924) from a public park.

The horrifying events of that 2017 weekend have hung over Richmond and so many other communities like a cloud. They have shadowed the (thankfully) rather tame demonstrations and counter-demonstrations displayed in episodes on Monument Avenue, with the governor and city police sending out large numbers of officers to keep the peace and to separate attendees.

Charlottesville denied the request of the Unite the Right’s leaders, including Jason Kessler, to return for another demonstration, so the group will be holding its anniversary rally in Washington, D.C. on August 12, 2018.

It is essential to view the recently-released report from Richmond’s Monument Avenue Commission in this context. The commission, which was formed in June 2017 by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, held a series of public and private deliberations over the course of a year charged by the events at Charlottesville, and it released its final recommendations in July 2018. The 115-page document can be found here. The report chronicles the public input received by the commission, the legal landscape involving the ownership and potential removal of monuments in the city, the general context for the monuments’ origins, and the network of such monuments elsewhere. As might be expected from members who made up the commission, the report is informative and thoughtful. Rightfully, the public has zeroed in on the commission’s final recommendations, which were of course at the center of the commission’s initial charge.

In a nutshell, the commission recommends:

  • adding context and additional signage in the public spaces adjoining the monuments to Confederates on Monument Avenue, to chart “the historic, biographical, artistic, and changing meaning over time for each.”
  • creating a permanent museum exhibit nearby that allows for deeper reflections on the avenue’s history
  • inviting contemporary artists to install temporary or permanent installations to “bring new and expanded meaning to Monument Avenue.” Specifically, the commission recommends a monument to soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, many of whom were formerly enslaved.
  •  removing the Jefferson Davis monument.

The last point follows an earlier call for Davis’s removal from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The commission agrees that “of all the statues, this one is the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment. Davis was not from Richmond or Virginia.” The commission proposes that elements of this monument could “be relocated to a cemetery-perhaps with Davis’s grave at Hollywood Cemetery.” Importantly, implementation of this last point would depend on changes in state law. Even with a more evenly split assembly, it is not clear if there is momentum for such a law.

So Richmond is back to something of a stalemate, pleasing neither side. For our purposes on this cemetery project, it is important to observe that the commission, and likely the public generally, sees Confederate monuments in (private?) cemeteries as different from such monuments in public spaces.