Should They Stay,
Or Should They Go ?
by Charles McGuigan
It’s all very complicated .
Much more complicated than an outsider would ever understand.
There’s that old joke. “How many Richmonders does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Three: One to change it, and two to reminisce about the old light bulb.”
There’s more than a little truth in that.
Some Richmonders still call the Boulevard Bridge the Nickel Bridge, even though the toll fare is now a dime and quarter. That toll hasn’t been a single nickel for more than forty years. Others still call The Diamond, Parker Field; Altria Theatre, the Mosque; and so on.
Whether it’s apocryphal or not—and I suspect it is—a reporter, shortly before Mark Twain’s death, asked the celebrated author where he would like to go if he knew he were going to die the following morning. Without a pause, Twain said: “Richmond.” When the reporter asked why, Twain supposedly said, “Because it’s always fifty years behind the times.”
Some might argue a hundred and fifty years behind the times. After all, it’s been about that long since the Civil War ended. And yet some Richmonders are still waving the Stars and Bars.
All that said, Monument Avenue is a part of our history, and I’ve never been one for revisionism. Denying the past, invites catastrophe in the future. Tearing down monuments does not alter the past in the least. What’s more, these monuments to Lee, Stuart, Jackson, Davis and Maury, are constant reminders of the era in which they were erected, that horrific time of old Jim Crow, the incessant racism that would ultimately lead to the Civil Rights movement. And we should never forget that.
I remember when I first arrived in Richmond back in the 1970s, a freshman at VCU, with the entire city at my disposal, new and unexplored. I would wonder nights up Monument Avenue, favoring the medium strips and not quite comprehending why someone would erect a monument to a general who had sworn a sacred oath to protect and defend the Constitution, only to desert his nation and join what amounted to insurrectionists. At that time, I often thought had I been black I might have been tempted to do what the Irish did on March 7, 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rebellion. The IRA blew up a statue of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson erected by the British on O’Connell Street in Dublin.
Ten years before that, in Budapest, a hundred thousand Hungarian revolutionaries demolished a massive statue of Joseph Stalin. All they left behind were his boots in which they planted their national flag.
In recent times, Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria, armed with explosives and bulldozes, have laid waste to countless statues and monuments, things ancient as the hills that can never be replaced. Their only reason for this wholesale destruction was to erase history.
There are some who claim the Civil War, which saw the deaths of 600,000 American citizens, was about states’ rights and not slavery. Consider the following excerpts from the articles of secession from several southern states.
This one’s from Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
Here’s Lousiana’s: “As a separate republic, Louisiana remembers too well the whisperings of European diplomacy for the abolition of slavery in the times of annexation not to be apprehensive of bolder demonstrations from the same quarter and the North in this country. The people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”
This is from Alabama: “Upon the principles then announced by Mr. Lincoln and his leading friends, we are bound to expect his administration to be conducted. Hence it is, that in high places, among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as it change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government, and even as the downfall of slavery. Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions—nothing less than an open declaration of war—for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and. her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
And Texas: “In this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.”
During the war, the following appeared in “Southern Punch”, a newspaper printed right here in Richmond: “‘The people of the South,’ says a contemporary, ‘are not fighting for slavery but for independence.’ Let us look into this matter. It is an easy task, we think, to show up this new-fangled heresy — a heresy calculated to do us no good, for it cannot deceive foreign statesmen nor peoples, nor mislead any one here nor in Yankeeland. Our doctrine is this: WE ARE FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE THAT OUR GREAT AND NECESSARY DOMESTIC INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY SHALL BE PRESERVED, and for the preservation of other institutions of which slavery is the groundwork.”
Getting back to the monuments though. I have never really liked giant statues of mere men, who, by their very nature, are flawed. Placing larger-than-life versions of specific men on pedestals seems somehow sacrilegious, impious at the very least, for men are not gods. Which is probably why the monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury has always been my favorite. Pathfinder of the seas, father of oceanography, inventor of the torpedo. Though this monument contains a seated Maury facing east to the Atlantic Ocean, it is dominated by a sea-tossed Mother Earth, with human beings rising out of the water, the Mother of All Life. Fish, dolphins, jellyfish and birds encrust the outer edge of the monument in a fluid motion. And then there was a beautiful thought Maury had concerning ocean-going vessels. He called them “a thousand temples of science for all humanity”, and seemed to earnestly believe that ships brought human beings and nations closer together. Turns out he was right about these temples of science, these ships that conduct scientific experiments which have gathered data that proves global climate change is real, giving all humanity a chance to reverse the damage mankind had done.
I’ve have talked with scores of people over the last couple weeks about what we should do with Monument Avenue. Some have recommended removing the statues and placing them at the Civil War Center, or else in Hollywood Cemetery. There are a lot of ways you could go on this, and I know in the end it will not be my decision or that of any other individual. We will come to some consensus on it. I will never know what it must be like to see these statues through the eyes of a black man or black woman whose ancestors were enslaved. How could I? I’m white. But I try to imagine.
Here’s what I think, though. One of the most important images missing from Monument Avenue is a statue of an enslaved human being. I would like to see J.E.B. Stuart moved to a new rotary island to the west, at Allison or Strawberry. In Stuart’s place, I envision a pedestal, twenty feet high, carved rough-hewn of black marble or granite. On top of that I would like to see a giant bronze statue of an African-American family, snapped chains dangling from manacles, backs and legs scarred with the cicatrix of endless whippings and degradation. And I would like to see this trio—man woman and infant—facing westward. This would be a colossus more than fifty feet high standing atop a twenty food base. And each member of this family, even the little baby, would look well over the heads of the Confederate equestrians and their small and antiquated ideas. These three would see beyond racism into the future of a freedom that must be absolute.
Editor’s Note: My gifted daughter, Catherine Rose McGuigan, was able to capture to perfection The Colossus of Monument Avenue. I am forever in awe of her talent and her profound generosity of spirit. My deep gratitude to her always for the privilege of being her father.