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Richmond To Remove Confederate Statues From Historic Avenue


Elected officials in Richmond, Va., the capital of the old Confederacy, have announced they plan to take down five Confederate statues on historic Monument Avenue. Here's the mayor of Richmond, Levar Stoney.


LEVAR STONEY: It's time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality, symbols that have literally dominated our landscape, with symbols that represent and summon the best in all of us.

SIMON: The Richmond City Council will have to give final approval to dismantle four of the monuments, including the one of Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederacy. But the largest, the six-story-tall statue of Robert E. Lee, stands on state property. Governor Ralph Northam has directed it be removed as soon as possible. This announcement happened after daily demonstrations through Richmond against police brutality and racial injustice. Governor Northam signed a new law in April that allows localities to remove these types of memorials.

Historian Julian Hayter is a professor at the University of Richmond. He was a member of the Monument Avenue commission that made recommendations to the city two years ago about the statues. Thanks very much for being with us.

JULIAN HAYTER: My pleasure. It's great to be here.

SIMON: Remind us why those statues are up because it - you know, they were put up by officials in states that had, after all, lost a Civil War.

HAYTER: Correct. Right, so these monuments are in many ways part and parcel of what we call the Lost Cause. You know, 600-and-some-odd-thousand people died during the Civil War, which is twice as many people that died in the Second World War. And I think people had to make sense of that, especially Southerners. Many of them didn't know what the punishment was going to be for the Civil War. And I think the Lost Cause is a way to justify, rationalize and make sense of their part in the Confederacy and what many consider treason. And what we begin to see over the twilight of the 19th century is Southerners coming up with these kind of crafty mythologies to rationalize not only the Civil War, but also slavery, but even more importantly, the rise of Jim Crow segregation.

SIMON: Professor Hayter, what about the argument that as reprehensible as what those statues might represent, you can't erase history, and the best thing is to, you know, put up plaques that explain who those people really were - something like that?

HAYTER: Yeah, it's difficult to erase history. However, I think many Confederate statues stand without context. And they are part of a much larger narrative, the institutionalization of the Lost Cause, the belief that African Americans were happy slaves and unprepared for freedom, that the Civil War was about states' rights and not slavery and that Confederate leadership were heroes. A sizable number of Americans still believe Lost Cause talking points. And I think what people have resolved to do is say, sure, it's difficult to erase history. But what history and what kind of false narrative are we willing to promote and let linger?

SIMON: Do you think those monuments, if they come down, should go into storage, go to some private collector or be melted down?

HAYTER: I think if those monuments are put in a warehouse, it is a squandered opportunity to deal with this false narrative that I continue to bring up. And this is just the beginning of a much larger movement to deal with all of the other manifestations and symbols of Jim Crow segregation that continue to have an influence on the nature of Southern cities. Confederate statuary isn't the only relic to the Lost Cause and segregation. We've got a public - an obsolescently segregated public school system in the city of Richmond. We've got residential segregation and the compression of poverty that still affects the very fabric of the city. It'd be wise to use these statues as a teachable talking point to familiarize people with the kind of perpetuation of African American serfdom that characterized Jim Crow segregation and those monuments tend to entrench. So I think it'd be a wasted opportunity to put those things away in a warehouse or melt them down without telling a counternarrative that finally begins to do its due diligence against the perpetuation of these terrible ideas.

SIMON: As we mentioned, you were part of that commission that made recommendations to the city in 2018 that would've - would add historical markers and make space for monuments and other memorials along Monument Avenue, including Arthur Ashe, Richmond's own. How would you like Monument Avenue to look in the future?

HAYTER: You know, I think the Kehinde Wiley statue that they put up on Arthur Ashe Boulevard is a great start. "Rumors Of War" is actually a play on the J.E.B. Stuart statue on Monument Avenue. It's an African American with Nikes and dreadlocks. It, in many ways, begins to re-interrogate the Lost Cause and the shelf life of Confederate statuary in a way that I think has, some ways, given us a way forward, the kinds of artistic latitude that you have with monuments to tell another story. So I think that's a good start.

SIMON: Julian Hayter, historian and professor at the University of Richmond. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

HAYTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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