It is a strange place, Monument Avenue. Running through the heart of Richmond, Virginia, the road is flanked by grand nineteenth-century townhouses and, as one gets closer to the city centre, large intersections adorned with statues. Statues with names such as James Stuart, Thomas Jackson and Robert E. Lee, prominent Confederate generals who defended the city from Union forces during the US Civil War.
Winston Churchill famously observed that ‘history is written by the victors’. Not so here. The men whose likeness still watches over Richmond lost their war, a desperate struggle to preserve history’s most abhorrent institution. Lee’s statue was the first to go up in 1890, some twenty-five years after his surrender. It was also the start of the segregation era. Four years prior, Plessy v. Ferguson had enshrined the so-called “separate-but-equal” doctrine at the US Supreme Court.
In 1907, monuments to Stuart and Jefferson Davies, the Confederate President, were unveiled. “Stonewall” Jackson followed in 1919, closely following the birth of the second Klu Klux Klan. This is the awkward truth for those who claim that the destruction of such monuments represents an assault on history. The vast majority of Confederate statues were erected between 1900 and 1920, as a response to liberal opposition to racist ‘Jim Crow laws’.
They are not monuments to the Civil War nor even the Confederacy but rather tools of segregation. As one historian put it: ‘Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past… But were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future’.
Richmond, Virginia, is a diverse city. It has a black mayor and a black congressman. Approximately half of its population is black. Yet, every day, these people must walk past symbols of a failed rebellion that sought to keep their ancestors in chains.
Statues are a poor way of learning about history, not least because that rarely happens to be their purpose. The statue of the slaver Edward Colston, which was recently thrown into the sea by protestors, did nothing to educate the uninformed observer. It’s inscription commemorated only his philanthropy, not the victims of his trade. A long-running effort to add a second plaque to the statue came undone following opposition from Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers, itself founded on profits from the slave trade.
Police have launched an investigation to identify those responsible for pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol.
— SkyNews (@SkyNews) June 8, 2020
The removal of statues to tyrants and dictators has long had a place in the history of revolution, peaceful or otherwise. When the Soviet Union fell apart, there were over five thousand monuments to Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine alone. Almost all have been torn down as the country reclaims its unique history. Only two remain, fittingly, amid the ruins of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, itself a monument to the last great injustice visited by the Communists upon Ukraine. And as Soviet power was coming to an end in Russia, Muscovites tore down a monument to Felix Dzerzinsky, the architect of the Red Terror, which stood in front of the old KGB headquarters at Lubyanka Square.
From Russia to the Middle East, the removal of these statues represented history in the making, not an assault on it. There were no such qualms about “preserving history” when the Berlin Wall came crashing down into a pile of cement and dust.
These monuments are not needed to remember the crimes of past and present. The names of tyrants are a lesson for future generations. They belong in classrooms and in history books, not our public squares.
The people who so strenuously oppose the removal of such imagery have never had to face the kind of oppression which has been all too common for black Americans or the worldwide victims of imperialism. If they did, their opinions on the matter would likely be different.
Statues are ultimately commemorative, so let us use them as such. The most recent addition to Monument Avenue was unveiled in 1996. It honours the tennis player Arthur Ashe. Born in Richmond, Ashe was the first African American selected for the US David Cup team and the only black man to win the singles at Wimbledon and the US Open. For nearly a century, a statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith represented Florida at the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol building. In 2018, it was replaced by one of Mary McLeod Bethune, a black civil rights activist.
Britain has a long and dark history as part of the transatlantic slave trade. But this country was also the proud home of Europe’s foremost abolitionist movement. It is only right that its members should be commemorated in cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow that were built upon the proceeds from this evil trade.
As for Edward Colston, some have suggested that the statue would have been better placed in a museum. Perhaps. But this is a much more fitting outcome. Twenty thousand people died aboard Royal African Company ships before their bodies were thrown into the sea. It is only right that Colston’s likeness met a similar fate.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.