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Williams: Harry F. Byrd Sr. was a racist. But if context counts, his statue belongs in Capitol Square.
CONTEXT COUNTS

Williams: Harry F. Byrd Sr. was a racist. But if context counts, his statue belongs in Capitol Square.

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A marker at the Capitol Square statue of Harry Flood Byrd Sr. touts “his devotion throughout a long public career to governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia.”

That’s a lie, of course.

Byrd — a former state and U.S. senator and governor of Virginia — was dedicated first and foremost to keeping Black Virginians in their place as an ardent segregationist and architect of Massive Resistance during a political career that spanned from 1916 to 1965.

Virginia, in this regard, was considered a leader by other Southern states, says public historian Lauranett Lee: “Byrd personified the machine segregationists built to resist change.”

On Wednesday, the Virginia House of Delegates voted to remove Byrd’s statue from Capitol Square in the latest chapter of Virginia’s racial reckoning.

Hooray for purging racist symbols from our landscape, right?

Well, not so fast.

To maintain Confederate statues on Monument Avenue is to promote the lie of the Lost Cause. But to remove Byrd from Capitol Square is to hide an ugly truth about the history of Virginia government.

Context cried for the 2016 removal of Byrd’s name from a western Henrico County school whose enrollment largely is people of color. It made no sense to ask a school community to suffer the banner of a man who never would have countenanced the racial diversity at Quioccasin Middle School.

But context calls for Byrd’s figure to remain on Capitol Square as a reminder of the damage he did for nearly a half-century.

There is nothing particularly heroic about the bronze figure of Byrd holding a copy of the federal budget. His statue is dwarfed by the George Washington Equestrian Statue, which also includes such venerated Virginia figures as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason.

Byrd occupies a row filled with Confederate figures such as William “Extra Billy” Smith, Stonewall Jackson and Hunter Holmes McGuire — but also the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, a powerful counterpoint that provides a context of historical tension and triumph. Byrd’s racist handiwork was felled, in part, by a Black schoolgirl, Barbara Johns.

Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and the other Confederates on Monument Avenue can find their proper context in museums, battlefields or Hollywood Cemetery.

Context for Byrd is more logically attained in the compact Capitol Square, a diversifying green with the civil rights memorial, Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument and Mantle, a tribute to Virginian Indians.

A December piece by Erin Thompson on Smithsonianmag.com explains that context might not be enough. As our politics demonstrates, people are hard-wired to reinforce what they already believe. But as Gary Sandling, Monticello’s vice president of education and visitor programs, says in the article, “Place matters when talking about slavery.”

Place also matters when we’re commemorating the segregation and subjugation experienced by Virginia’s Black citizens at the hands of elected officials like Byrd.

We fought to eliminate the whitewashed version of Monticello and expanded the telling of the story at what, after all, was a plantation where enslaved Black people lived, labored and, in the case of Sally Hemings, bore Thomas Jefferson’s children.

People who visit Capitol Square need to know the horrors Byrd and his ilk inflicted on so many Virginians. A new plaque describing his role in disenfranchising and oppressing his fellow citizens would be a start.

But Laurajane Smith, author of the book “Emotional Heritage: Visitor Engagement at Museums and Heritage Sites,” told Smithsonian that changing minds about history isn’t as simple as adding signs. She said such sites must “provide the resources to allow visitors to work through difficult and challenging emotions in a way that is constructive.” As an example, she cited an immigration museum in Melbourne, Australia, that uses an interactive simulation of a hate speech incident on a tram.

Richmond already has a template to tap into the emotional truth of history with the high-tech visuals of Black freedom fighters projected upon the Lee monument during our summer of protest. How about a similar touch at Capitol Square?

As for its statuary, a vivid counterpoint to Byrd would be a symbol of Black political empowerment. How about an adjacent monument to the Richmond Crusade for Voters, featuring founders John Mitchell Brooks, Dr. William S. Thornton and Dr. William Ferguson Reid, the first African American elected to the General Assembly in the 20th century?

“We need to infuse old history with new research,” Lee said. “To stay stuck in the old ways we have been taught about history stunts our growth. New history takes in diverse perspectives and challenges us to acknowledge change over time. Context matters.”

The statue of Byrd, a man devoted to oppression, should remain in Capitol Square as a reminder of old ways, changing times and the unfinished work in the best interest of all of the people of Virginia.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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