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SITES OF ‘AMERICAN APARTHEID’

Williams: Monument Avenue is not enough. Let's reimagine Richmond.

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Monument Ave. without Robert E. Lee statue

Monument Avenue in Richmond is seen without the Robert E. Lee statue in September.

It took 39 years and six months to erect the five Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. They were all removed in 15 months.

What was to come next was a reimagining of Monument Avenue, led by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and augmented by state funding.

At first glance, VMFA seemed like an inspired choice, having transformed itself from the epitome of Old Richmond into a more diverse and welcoming space. It helped shepherd in its renamed address, Arthur Ashe Boulevard, and erected a game-changing new landmark — Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” statue of a contemporary Black man on horseback, inspired by the J.E.B. Stuart monument.

But last fall, the political winds shifted.

Republicans swept the state’s top three offices and reclaimed the House of Delegates, reinstalling into power a political party that had ardently protected Confederate statues. The spirit of protest and social change that began in the late spring of 2020 suddenly felt like a fleeting moment. Then-Gov. Ralph Northam executed a handoff of the Robert E. Lee monument from the commonwealth to the city, which conveyed that and other Confederate monuments to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

Without any state property on Monument Avenue, VMFA — a state agency — exited stage left.

Patience has become a watchword.

“It is worth remembering that the Confederate statues that formerly lined Monument Avenue stood for more than 100 years, and the pedestals upon which they stood were only completely removed a few weeks ago,” Jim Nolan, press secretary for Mayor Levar Stoney, said Monday.

“The mayor thinks it’s important we take a breath, and take the time necessary to thoughtfully reimagine this gateway to our city, recognizing that the Avenue today remains an idyllic thoroughfare, without monuments.”

Bill Martin, director of The Valentine, sounded a similar sentiment.

“I think the main takeaway is both the Black History Museum and the city, from what I know, have committed to a much longer-term process to allow broader community input, but also to allow time to understand the history of what happened in 2020 in a way that is removed a bit from when it actually happened,” Martin said.

“I’m from the country,” he added. “Letting land lay fallow is not a bad idea, to allow people to heal so you can do the work to grow the future that you want.”

Bill Martin for Sunday

In this 2018 photo, Bill Martin sat outside the Wickham House at the Valentine.

But as we pause to consider that future, I wonder: Is our reimagining process threatened by a paucity of imagination and ambition?

If what we’re ultimately about is merely a reinvention of one street, we’re thinking too small.

We are approaching this nation’s 250th anniversary, and democracy stands at a precipice. Our current political zeitgeist of belligerence, state’s rights, white grievance and insurrection appears to draw more inspiration from the Lost Cause.

Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, has much to teach a nation in need of the lesson. But we must connect the dots.

Instead of merely reimagining Monument Avenue, we’ve got to imagine a Richmond with a holistic history worthy of individual parts such as Jackson Ward, a cradle of Black entrepreneurship; Shockoe Bottom, once the nation’s second-busiest domestic market in the buying and selling of human beings; and the University of Richmond, which is interrogating its history as a site of enslavement.

“Richmond’s core commemorative landscape, and in particular, our sites of conscience, are both an unmatched and underutilized opportunity,” said Marland Buckner, interim executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

“Were we to take a holistic approach that saw us align, integrate, collaborate and coordinate” across public, private, academic and philanthropic sectors, Buckner said, “we would be able to show the nation and the world why it is essential that you come to Richmond and learn about and experience these places for yourself, so that you can understand the arc of the story of the expansion of freedom — and the ways in which that expansion was too often undermined and nullified.”

Marland

Buckner

As for the Confederate statues in his museum’s possession, he said: “The process we’re in right now is working to ensure that these monuments themselves function as teaching tools designed to inform evidence-based, historically accurate, and — frankly — much deeper discussion of the complex dimensions of American apartheid.

“These monuments represent the grandest artistic expressions of American apartheid. Our job is to put them to work unwinding the legacy they wrought.”

The crisis of U.S. democracy is tied to the legacy they wrought. In connecting Monument Avenue to our larger history, we can build a path forward.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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