Yes, let’s have a good look at RVA’s monumental history — with honesty and respect

Posted at 12:59 AM, Jun 23, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. -- Richmond's new mayor lived up to his name and a campaign promise Thursday when he introduced the Monument Avenue Commission and outlined its tasks to re-write the "false narratives" of Richmond's world-famous Confederate monuments and find some new statues to add some diversity.

It was perhaps Levar Stoney's most stony and passionate speech of his young career, delivered as other cities across the nation wrestle with the images and icons of the Civil War and what they say to us today.

"It was written in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago," Stoney said of our monuments during the press conference. "Not only does it distort history by lionizing the architects of and defenders of slavery, but also to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow that ushered a new era of white supremacy."

The monuments are all "part of the false narrative - the alternative facts, if you will - that we will begin to fact-check starting today," he said.

The commission, largely made up of esteemed historians and educators along with some city leaders and legal experts, is expected to come up with plans for plaques and other ways to explain the context of the monuments and those who created them, all by Nov. 1. (Really? Four months for 100-plus years of history?) There are two public hearings (really, that's all?) that will be announced soon that will occur some time in the next 90 days.

The mayor stated that he's not asking to tear any monuments down. But after the press conference - when asked about doing just that- he left the door open for demolition, saying what he wants done now is a "first step."

While the co-chair of the commission, Christy Coleman (CEO of the American Civil War Museum), struck a conciliatory tone and urged those present to work together to get this right, the mayor's comments indicated he felt certain that white supremacy and terror were the motives for the creation of the monuments. And he basically said he found all but one of them unworthy, if not detestable.

Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue sparked development of the now-famous Monument Avenue, had been dead nearly 20 years when his statue was unveiled May 29, 1890.

Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue sparked development of the now-famous Monument Avenue, had been dead nearly 20 years when his statue was unveiled May 29, 1890.

Me, I think an honest examination of how the monuments came to be is a fantastic idea, as long as it is done with integrity and respect. The correct information is available. (See the accompanying story I wrote in 1996 for a hint of it.)

And there's certainly room on this avenue for some grand new monuments.

"I think we should consider Monument Avenue have a little more diversity on that stretch of road," Stoney said. "Right now, Arthur Ashe stands alone as the only true champion on that street."

Monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury

Monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury

Wait a minute - the only true champion on Monument Avenue? What about Matthew Fontaine Maury?

Yes, some might say Commodore Maury was a face of the Confederate Navy - the guy who helped devise deadly mines for southern waters. (Most of his wartime efforts were in Europe, trying to stop the war.)

But this Spotsylvania County native was mainly known as the "pathfinder of the seas," the man who charted ocean currents and winds, a tireless researcher and author whose work in several fields before and after the war profoundly changed the world. He's buried here at Hollywood Cemetery, right beside presidents John Tyler and James Monroe.

Commodore Maury and Mrs. Elvira Evelina Moffitt

Commodore Maury and Mrs. Elvira Evelina Moffitt

And the person behind a monument for "the first and foremost oceanographer" wasn't some Jim Crow mafia, but Mrs. Elvira Evelina Moffitt, a 78-year-old woman and historical activist from North Carolina (please read her bio online) who tirelessly raised the money for one of the world's rare monuments to a heroic scientist. She lived just long enough to see it unveiled.

But it wasn't her idea. According to old newspaper reports, the monument to Maury was originally suggested by a letter-writer to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It took 40 years to get it done.

The top of the monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury

The top of the monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury

My cursory review of the idealization of Richmond's monuments through the eyes of newspaper accounts at the time shows lengthy and complicated negotiations and fund-raising efforts, with some of the same concerns about racism and intimidation voiced then as the mayor shared on Thursday.

I am confident the commission will find and share the truth. It will cool to see what they come up with in terms of new monuments and "contextualizing" the old ones.

I just wish the mayor had introduced this complex and controversial effort with a little more grace and not so much stony condemnation.

HOLMBERG: A monumental history of squabbling over statues

HOLMBERG: Why Monument Avenue is safe as other cities remove Civil War statues