Richmond, Va., Grapples With Fate Of Confederate Monuments A commission created by the mayor of Richmond, Va., is considering the fate of the former Confederate capital's famed monuments. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro sits in on its first public hearing.

Richmond, Va., Grapples With Fate Of Confederate Monuments

Richmond, Va., Grapples With Fate Of Confederate Monuments

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A commission created by the mayor of Richmond, Va., is considering the fate of the former Confederate capital's famed monuments. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro sits in on its first public hearing.


Next, we go to Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy. This city is also grappling with what to do with its many monuments. On a recent afternoon, we visited its aptly named Monument Avenue, a wide boulevard lined with trees and stately mansions, home to many sculptures honoring Confederate figures. Towering at its heart is Confederate General Robert E. Lee, sitting on his horse perched on a marble plinth gazing out across the city.

BILL MARTIN: My name is Bill Martin. I'm the director of the Valentine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Martin is the director of the city's history museum. And he says this statue and others were put up well after the Civil War ended.

MARTIN: It has everything and nothing to do with the Civil War because these are constructed 25 years after the war has ended. And so these are people that are trying to capture a memory or, actually, to not even capture memory - to create a memory that will support a reorganization of the city along the line - with Jim Crow as its centerpiece.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marking segregation.

MARTIN: Marking who's in charge. There's no better way. I mean, there's no clearer way to say, we are in charge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the same time, Martin says, other parts of the city's history were being literally obliterated. He says history is not only about what we choose to commemorate but what we choose to forget. Richmond was the second-largest American slave trading center in the country after New Orleans. He drives us to a nearby part of town, a desolate urban strip.

MARTIN: We are entering the center of the American slave trade. There's not a hint.


MARTIN: There's not a hint that - of anything that happened in this location.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, yeah, there's old modern buildings and sort of...

MARTIN: Modern old buildings.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And overpasses and parking lots.

MARTIN: And under I-95, which we're going to be going under, this would've been Wall Street. And along Wall Street would have been located auction houses and other associated businesses associated with the slave trade. So there were actually retailers whose focus was actually dressing people to be sold. At this point, there's really not a hint.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Richmond's mayor, Levar Stoney, has now set up a commission to decide what to do with the city's Confederate statues. But already off the table is taking them down. Instead, the idea is to give them context. Last week, the commission held its first public meeting getting input from residents. Hundreds showed up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Let's start with our speakers.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Each person was given two minutes to give their point of view.

KATHY BILESTINE: These Confederate generals should be honored, not looked upon as a symbol of slavery and racism. Removing or changing the monument statues on Monument Avenue would be removing or changing history.

TRAVIS TOOMBS: There's an entire rest of the city to add statues to whatever you so choose to do. And I do not know want to see any monuments on there for any of them low-down, invading, murdering, raping, looting, burning heathens from the North.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Kathy Bilestine (ph) and Travis Toombs. Others like Chante Holt and Charles Satchell felt very differently.

CHANTE HOLT: As a small child, I saw these statutes on Monument - thank you - on Monument Avenue, and I just assumed that they were such great men. But as I got older, I went to school and started learning about these men. And learning about that history hurts. Going by those statues every day when I come home from work hurts. It - and I cannot be the only person of color to feel this way.

CHARLES SATCHELL: If you would just think back what it was like during those times because when I see the monuments, I just go back. That's not OK to me. It's not OK for me to think about how women were just raped even by all the great generals. And they tortured men and women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The meeting was tense. Emotions ran high. But there was no violence.

JULIAN HAYTER: This is controversial stuff. And I think, given what's transpired throughout the United States in the last several months, this meeting in comparison was relatively civil.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's commission member Julian Hayter, an African-American professor of history at the University of Virginia.

HAYTER: History in and of itself is an interpretive endeavor. And there's no shame in saying that context dictates the nature in which people write history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think this is the right thing to do at the right time?

HAYTER: I think you cannot divorce the nature in which there has been calls for removal or recontextualization of Confederate monuments from what is happening in America right now. I mean, look at Richmond, St. Louis, New Orleans - 30 percent poverty rates in African-American communities, right? And I think in some ways there are people who recognize that you cannot have reconciliation without recognition. And these conversations about monuments are, in some way, an effort to do just that because, really, they're a referendum on what I would call the lasting effects of not just slavery but Jim Crow segregation. And I think that Mayor Stoney's charge was to recontextualize to have a deeper conversation about these things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The next public meeting is in a month, as Richmond debates its history and its future.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, Julian Hayter is described as being a professor at the University of Virginia. In fact, Hayter is at the University of Richmond.]


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Correction Aug. 14, 2017

In this report, Julian Hayter is described as being a professor at the University of Virginia. In fact, Hayter is at the University of Richmond.