As Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Union troops prepared to march into Richmond in the final days of the Civil War in 1865, the president of the Confederate States of America fled the capital city.
On Wednesday, 155 years after his retreat, Jefferson Davis was forcefully removed from Richmond once again – this time it was protesters who defaced and then toppled the statue at his monument along the city’s grand Monument Avenue.
The recent demonstrations against four Confederate monuments in Richmond are an extension of the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Their result is a remarkably swift change to a city that has held on tightly to a skewed view of its own history.
Statues of two Confederate generals on the historic Monument Avenue will soon be taken down by the city of Richmond, and last week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the crown jewel, an impressive equestrian statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee that has been a Richmond icon for more than a century, will also be removed.
The changes are part of renewed energy in recent days to strip the country and the culture of the enduring celebrations of the Confederacy and the ideology of white supremacy it represents. From calls to rechristen military bases named for Confederate figures to the banning of the Confederate battle flag from appearing at NASCAR races, the decades-long effort to end the public romanticizing of the “lost cause” appears to be getting results.
“I think there’s a shifting in America that’s taking place right now,” said Michael Jones, who as a member of Richmond’s city council has pushed hard to remove the monuments. Jones credits Floyd’s death and the subsequent outrage for making it possible. “It was this man’s sacrifice: unwilling, unnecessary, and uninvited. And I need his family to know, we thank you. He made this possible.”
What is happening in Richmond is particularly significant. Unlike Atlanta or New Orleans, Richmond has defined itself for much of the past century and a half as the center of the fabled lost cause of the Confederacy. This romantic narrative about the nobility of the antebellum south spread throughout the region following Reconstruction and manifested itself in a legal and de facto culture of racial segregation and white supremacy.
Jim Crow laws were the most consequential and oppressive embodiment of the lost cause, but so too were the monuments, memorials and tributes that arose in the south from around the end of the 19th century through the first several decades of the 20th. That’s the context, said Elizabeth Muhlenfeld Wollan of Richmond’s American Civil War Museum, in which Richmond’s statues were put up.
“There have always been, or at least since the statues were erected, a coterie of people who were fascinated by and supportive of the memory of the Confederacy…as a lost cause,” said Wollan. “Most people have not, until very recent years, thought about their meaning.”
Relief and reevaluation
A recent law passed by Virginia’s Democrat-controlled legislature gives local governments in the Old Dominion the right to keep or remove Confederate monuments. The law goes into effect on July 1, giving Richmond the greenlight to ditch Davis and two other statues of generals along Monument Avenue, of Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.
But the Lee monument is under control of the state itself, making necessary Northam’s order last week. Although an injunction issued by a state court means the date of the statue’s removal is uncertain, the announcement was applauded by black leaders in Richmond and Virginia as a remarkable development in finding racial reconciliation.
“It’s one thread in the woven fabric of white supremacy that encapsulates our country,” said Jones. “I’m glad that we’re all in sync, all moving in the right direction.”
When Jennifer McClellan heard Northam’s announcement, she said she primarily felt relief. Almost daily, the Democratic state senator drives past the massive statue of the Confederate general near her home in Richmond.
“As a 47-year-old black woman, I sort of conditioned myself to ignore it because it was too painful,” McClellan told CNN, speaking through tears. “It feels like this weight will be lifted off of my shoulder, personally, and my people’s.”
That sense of cautious hope McClellan expressed was echoed by others in the area – some of whom acknowledged how deeply embedded Confederate worship is into the culture of Richmond and Virginia.
“I know a lot of my friends and a lot of people my age who grew up going to reenactments, revering the idea of Lee as a noble man, are having a hard time with it,” said Chris Peace, a Richmond-born former Republican state delegate. “I think (we’re) coming to the realization that a faith in America should supersede any of those personal feelings. We should humble ourselves to that more powerful notion that we should be unified.”
A shift in public recognition
The dedication to the lost cause myth in Virginia goes beyond reenactments and reverence for Lee.
Until recently, a major highway in Alexandria, just outside of Washington, DC, was named for Jefferson Davis. Lee himself became president of Washington College in Lexington following the Civil War, which was renamed Washington and Lee University when the general died in 1870. And next door to the university is the state-run Virginia Military Institute, where cadets live in bunkers named for Confederate military figures and a monument honors Stonewall Jackson.
Northam, Virginia’s current governor, is a graduate of VMI. His connection not just to the school but to the state’s longstanding white elite (he hails from a wealthy family based on Virginia’s eastern shore) makes his effort to move Lee and other Confederate memorials all the more remarkable.
Also worth noting is Northam’s own apparent indulgence in racism as a young man, revealed by an old medical school yearbook photo that appears under his name showing two people dressed in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam claims he is not either person in the photo, but he did admit to dressing in blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume at a different time.
Jones said he supports Northam in the decision to remove Lee and dismissed the idea that it was some sort of penance for his blackface scandal.
“You can’t get any more Virginian than VMI. He’s had his past struggles. People are going to call him and hold him accountable for that. He’s stepping up and leading,” said Jones. “It’s going to take white people to truly dismantle white supremacy.”
Peace said it was Northam’s words of contrition and unity that inspired him to let go of reservations he has about removing the Lee monument.
“His words caused me to evaluate my own heart and caused me to let go of my own anger and sadness regarding the recent Monument Avenue announcement to instead embrace an abiding faith in our country that better times are around the corner,” Peace said.
A pivotal event before Floyd’s death came in Charlottesville in 2017, when a rally of white supremacists and neo-Nazis protesting the proposed removal of a Lee monument in that city became violent. One counter-protester, a white woman named Heather Heyer, was killed after one white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. Nineteen others were injured.
McClellan says what happened in Charlottesville “really opened a lot of people’s eyes” and started a shift in Virginia politics.
Democrats swept the three statewide elections in 2017 and gained 15 seats in the House of Delegates. Two years later, Republicans lost control of both houses of the legislature, giving Democrats the majorities needed to pass the law giving localities the ability to remove their Confederate memorials.
While the likely changes coming to Confederate monuments in Virginia and elsewhere don’t mean there won’t be resistance, there is a sense that the shift in the overall public’s recognition of systemic racism – and how Confederate worship perpetuates it – is lasting. For lawmakers like McClellan, the work is hardly over.
“I think this is a first step in beginning the process to heal wounds that have been festering for 400 years,” she said of the Lee removal. “Now we can finally begin the process of healing that wound. This cannot be the only step.”