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Museum curator: Robert E. Lee statue 'was a segregation selling point'

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Posted at 6:38 PM, Sep 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 10:52:23-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Much of the Richmond that we know today was influenced by the past of Monument Avenue. According to historians, when plans were developed for the area in the 1880s, the Robert E. Lee monument was meant to serve a very specific purpose.

"I'm glad we don't have to see this anymore," said Renada Harris about the Lee statue.

The surviving trace of America's Civil War no longer stands tall over Richmond's Monument Avenue. For Harris, it used to be a constant reminder that some people don't belong.

"We no longer have to drive up and down Monument Avenue and be reminded of what he stood for and white supremacy," Harris said.

Meanwhile, others believe that history, even when it's painful, shouldn't be erased.

"You cannot change history," said Joseph Stanley. "It sits on its own foundation, and you must learn from it."

But a part of that history that cannot be changed includes a divisive intention behind the erection of the statue.

"It was a segregation selling point," said Christina Vida, a curator at The Valentine Museum in Richmond. "It was a real estate development centered on the Lost Cause sculpture and Lost Cause monument that revolved around Lee, and it became a way to attract more white Richmonders to buy homes."

That's according to the Allen Addition, which is a plan dated 1888 for the development of the area now known as Monument Avenue.

During the same time, Vida said racist covenants came into play that barred Black families from buying properties on and around Monument Avenue. It led Black people to establish roots in Jackson Ward and the north and east sides of town. Those century-old legacies still have impacts seen in 2021.

"In those neighborhoods where Lost Cause monuments were erected in Richmond, you do still see primarily white residents, even though the laws do not apply anymore," Vida said. "There is still sort of de facto residential segregation here in Richmond."

Vida said it's also important to remember that just because Black people couldn't purchase homes, it doesn't mean they weren't there and couldn't see the Confederate statues and understand the message they represented.

"They were present in these homes, they were working in these homes," Vida explained. "They were accessing the back doors in the alleys of Monument Avenue as soon as it was being constructed."

Moving forward, Vida said Richmonders have a chance to be a part of a new legacy.

"With the statue gone, I do hope to see a reengagement by the community in the process for what they want to see for the folks not only on Monument Avenue but the folks that are driving down Monument Avenue," she said.

It's a process Harris plans to be a part of.

"Maybe they can put monuments of things of positivity, people that have done great things for Virginia and for our nation," Harris said. "Maybe we can have a waterfall so that people and kids of all colors can play together."

Much of the history and artifacts referenced by Vida can be found at The Valentine.