RICHMOND, Va. — As international visitors are coming to Richmond for the UCI Road World Championship, concern among activists is increasing that Confederate imagery around the city will dampen its reputation.
“It’s going to be an international issue when people start coming in here from 62 countries and saying, ‘Really?’” said Phil Wilayto, a founding member of the Richmond Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. “After everything, after Charleston, after Black Lives Matter, after this discussion, after the mayor of New Orleans calling for the Jefferson Davis statue to be taken down? You still decided to highlight this to the world? What are you thinking?”
Of particular concern for political activists is that the race runs down Monument Avenue, home to statues of Confederate leaders, and that it loops several circuits around a statue of Jefferson Davis. Wilayto said that it’s a reminder that Richmond was once the capital of the Confederacy and a major hub for the domestic slave trade.
“I think anyone who comes to Richmond from outside the city or the state and looks at this stuff, they say, ‘Why? I don’t get this, it’s like they’re living in the past, they’re honoring these people,'” said Wilayto.
While Gov. Terry McAuliffe rejected the idea that the race route should be changed, the Richmond Defenders plan to hold a press conference in front of the Jefferson Davis statue on Saturday to stress that these monuments “do not represent the true values of the people of Richmond or Virginia.”
As visitors for the race are just arriving, many current Richmond residents from other countries do not seem to understand why Confederate symbols are still displayed.
“I learned something of (the Civil War) in school,” said Evita Giebeler, a German exchange student at VCU, who has only been in Richmond for a month. “The Confederacy – they were the bad guys, of course, for having slaves.”
She drew a parallel between Confederate displays in Richmond and neo-Nazi displays back home.
“In Germany, the display of the Nazi flag is forbidden,” said Giebeler, when asked about displays of the Confederate flag. “But with the monuments, we have the same issue.”
Giebeler said that Germany often keeps Nazi monuments in museums, along with information about the subjects depicted. She suggested that Richmond not bury the monuments, but instead provide visitors with more information.
“There should be facts available,” she said. “So people understand what the context is and who the people are.”
Other international students expressed doubts that international visitors would be able to identify Confederate symbols.
“I don’t even know what the Confederate flag looks like,” said student Huyen Nguyen, who moved to the U.S. from Vietnam in 2010. “I only know the American flag.”
Another student, Mahder Kebede, came to the U.S. from Ethiopia in 2013. She said she learned about the Civil War and the U.S. slave trade in high school, but has only delved into the history of the Confederacy this year.
“I don’t think Ethiopian visitors will associate the monuments with the Civil War or anything like that,” she said. “Not unless someone explains it to them.”
Patrick Saylor, communications director for the American Civil War Museum, said that the monuments should be an accurate depiction of both Richmond’s past and American history, “both the good parts and the bad.”
“Richmond played a key part in some of the most critical moments in American history,” Saylor said. “That part of our past has never been cut and dry, history almost never is.”
For those coming to the city for the bike race, the American Civil War Museum is offering both extended visiting hours and a “pop-up museum” as part of the FanFest.
“The Civil War affected the lives of everyone alive in the United States at the time, Northern and Southern, white and black, and shaped who we are as a country today,” Saylor said. “We have a responsibility to educate ourselves about this part of our history, if only to gain a better understanding of who we are as a nation and a people.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: WTVR.com has partnered with the iPadJournos mobile and social media journalism project at VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. This story was reported by the iPadJournos.