clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The night they’ll tear old Dixie down

For generations, a single street paying homage to Robert E. Lee and his Confederate allies has upheld Richmond’s racist foundations. Change is coming.

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia.
| Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the decline of liberal democracy in the United States. He received a JD from Duke University and is the author of two books on the Supreme Court.

Start at the southeastern end of Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, and you’ll see a nearly 30-foot-tall bronze statute of J.E.B. Stuart, the Confederate cavalry commander and intelligence officer that Gen. Robert E. Lee once praised as the “eyes of the army.” Continue driving northwest, and you’ll see monuments honoring Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Lee’s close subordinate Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate naval commander Matthew Fontaine Maury.

The five Confederate monuments have dominated Richmond’s landscape for decades — some of them even longer — since they were first erected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a swell of passion for the white Southern “lost cause.” The Lee statue alone is simply enormous, made of bronze and looming 61 feet high on a granite and marble base reminiscent of a shrine honoring a Roman emperor.

Once staunch defenders of slavery, the men celebrated along Monument Avenue stand as symbols of a racist and treasonous past, one that many Americans still look upon with nostalgia. Richmond, once the South’s most vibrant industrial center, built ordinance for the Confederacy’s cannons, track for its railroads, and iron cladding for its warships. After Virginia seceded from the Union, Confederates moved their capital to Richmond.

Today, monuments to Confederate leaders line a divided boulevard, the sort of street where victorious armies march in parades to celebrate their triumphs. They’re surrounded by mansions that housed many of Richmond’s wealthiest white families.

But these statues are finally starting to come down. This month, anti-racism protesters splattered the Davis statue in pink paint and tore it down using ropes attached to a small car. Police hauled away the statue on a tow truck as nearby protesters cheered and chanted taunts at the fallen Confederate leader.

The four remaining statues, already covered in graffiti touting anti-racist messages like “No more white supremacy” and “Amerikkka,” will soon join Davis in similar ignominy.

A statue of Jefferson Davis lies on the street after protesters pulled it down on June 10, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.
Parker Michels-Boyce/AFP via Getty Images

At a press conference earlier this month, Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam — a man alleged to have his own fraught history with racist blackface — announced the state would “remove the statue of Robert E. Lee as soon as possible.” Of the five monuments, the Lee statue is the only one that sits on state-owned land, and therefore must be removed by state officials.

Northam had already signed legislation permitting Virginia cities to remove monuments on their own land. (The law takes effect in just days, on July 1.) This means that Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a young, African American Democrat, will soon be able to remove the remaining monuments with the consent of the City Council — an act that he’s made clear he will pursue.

“It’s time to heal, ladies and gentlemen,” Stoney said at the same press conference, with Northam standing nearby. “Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy.”

For the moment, the Lee statue remains, due to an unusual court order handed down by a judge who warned that if Northam has the power to tear down the Lee monument, he could also take down a “monument to George Washington.” But that court order is unlikely to remain in effect for very long. In the interim, Lee and the other statues stand, not only as monuments to Confederate treason and white supremacy but also as reminders that the city’s racist past infected many of its most elite residents.

One need travel only a couple of miles from Monument Avenue to find the Commonwealth Club, an exclusive social club that, for a century, was both all-white and all-male. State lawmakers used to gather there to socialize and plan the next day’s strategies; it was a club where, according to one 1979 profile, “When members toast ‘Mr. President,’ it is said they raise their glasses to a portrait of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.”

Past members reportedly include Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, US Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., governors John Dalton and Mills Godwin, and Clement Haynsworth, a federal judge whose nomination to the Supreme Court failed over allegations that, among other things, he supported segregation in public schools.

Richmond’s old racist institutions have long stood in tension with more liberal forces that have slowly transformed Virginia into a blue state. Former Democratic Gov. Douglas Wilder, a Black man, humiliated the Commonwealth Club when he turned down the offer of membership it traditionally extends to the state governor shortly after his election in 1989. As a state senator, Wilder had denounced the old Richmond institution as “a racist club, a retreat from the world where social gains are being made.”

The remaking of Monument Avenue will be the culmination of those social gains. It is the final chapter of a story that begins in racist rebellion and will end in a city led by an ambitious Black mayor expelling the Confederacy’s leaders once and for all.

Richmond was the locus of the worst sin Americans have ever committed. It was the capital of a treasonous regime founded on the idea that white people could and should own Black people because they believed white people were inherently superior. And the city celebrated that sin for more than a century. It was irredeemable.

But the Richmond of today looks very different than the racist white elites who once filled Monument Avenue’s mansions. Years of demographic change replaced the city’s Confederate sympathizers with the kind of people who protest racist symbols and have no desire to live near giant monuments to slave-owning traitors.

The irredeemable city is gone, and a new city is tearing down the shrines to an unforgivable past.

Protesters raise their fists in front of a graffiti-covered statue depicting Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The graffiti contains pro-BLM messages and calls for defunding the police.
Visitors pose in front of the graffiti-covered statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee this month in Richmond, Virginia. The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis has brought a heightened awareness to racial justice across America, reigniting calls to tear down statues of Confederate officials who fought a war to defend slavery.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

The heart of a prosperous, racist community

Henry Grady was one of the white South’s greatest evangelists of the post-Civil War era. Part owner of what was then known as the Atlanta Constitution, Grady turned the newspaper into a nationally prominent platform touting his vision for a “New South,” one that, as Grady told a gathering prominent of New York businessmen in 1886, would reject its feudal history of masters and slaves in favor of a brighter, more capitalist vision.

“The old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth,” Grady said in a speech to the New England Society. But the New South was a middle-class society, powered by an emergent bourgeoisie. It was “less splendid on the surface” than antebellum society, Grady said, “but stronger at the core — a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace — and a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.”

Grady’s vision, however, always had a sinister side. The New South was no longer dominated exclusively by plantation owners who lorded over Black workers like medieval viscounts. But the emerging class of white professionals and capitalists were often just as racist and exploitative as their slave-owning ancestors.

Less than four years after Grady spoke in New York, around 150,000 people gathered in Richmond to watch the dedication of Monument Avenue’s Robert E. Lee statue. It was a celebration of a man who killed his own countrymen in defense of slavery. And it was a baptism, of sorts, for an American traitor. Lee’s sin of treason was washed away, and the Confederate general was reborn as a heroic figure.

The 61-foot-tall bronze memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was erected in 1890 in Richmond on what is now known as Monument Avenue. The monument looms over the city’s progress, championing a sin that the South has resisted rejecting.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

But the dedication of this monument wasn’t just a declaration of a racist ideology. It was also a sales pitch to the very businessmen whom Grady touted as the region’s new heroes.

It was “an opportunity to showcase a new real-estate development that included wide boulevards and Monument Avenue itself,” historian Kevin Levin wrote in the Atlantic. The neighborhood would attract a wide range of Richmond’s new oligarchs. “Bank presidents, manufacturers, lawyers, and real-estate developers” — all of whom were white — “purchased lots and built impressive homes along Monument Avenue,” he continued.

Monument Avenue’s merger of Confederate nostalgia with an emerging capitalist ethic proved a microcosm of the New South. Like any good salesman, Grady targeted his pitch to his audience. When he spoke in New York, he touted a kind of racial symbiosis between the kind of men who owned homes along Monument Avenue and the formerly enslaved. “No section shows a more prosperous laboring population than the Negroes of the South; none in fuller sympathy with the employing and land-owning class,” Grady said to his northern audience.

Grady offered a very different message for his Southern audience in Dallas the following year. “Those who would put the Negro race in supremacy would work against infallible decree,” he said, “for the white race can never submit to its domination, because the white race is the superior race.”

In Richmond, these two messages were often woven together. Early 20th century Richmonders often tried to entice businesses into the city by ”playing the line of being a New South city that still reveres its past,” says Karen Cox, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The lawyers and bank owners who built Monument Avenue’s homes also filled institutions that celebrated Richmond’s Confederate past. The Commonwealth Club was conveniently located so that businessmen living in the shadow of the street’s statues could grab a drink on their way home from work. It did not admit its first African American member until 1988.

After enjoying a glass of bourbon at the club, Richmond’s white elites could drive down Monument Avenue to play golf at the Country Club of Virginia, which did not admit a Black member until 1992 — 84 years after it opened.

Students from the Richmond School of Art sketch a statue on Monument Avenue in this 1941 photo. White Richmond upheld the city’s Confederate past; it relished in it.
Gabriel Benzur/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Someone traveling between the two clubs would pass St. Christopher’s School, a private boys’ school that educated many of Richmond’s sons of wealth. For 95 years, elementary students at St. Christopher’s were divided into the “Lee literary society” and the “Jackson literary society” as an homage to two of the Confederate generals honored on Monument Avenue. The school did not rename the societies until 2010.

One of the more unlikely activists calling for the statues to come down on Monument Avenue is the Rev. Robert W. Lee, the general’s great-great-great-great-nephew. Like many white men in the South, he grew up surrounded by Confederate iconography and immersed in a sanitized view of the past — a view he rejected as he trained for the ministry.

We spoke about why white Richmonders continued to cling to these icons for well over a century after Rev. Lee’s ancestor surrendered his army. “As a white man in the South,” he says, “you want that connection [to Confederate symbols] to be as deep as it can be because it is a connection to power.” That was never more true than in Richmond.

A white child born into Richmond’s high society could spend their life immersed in Confederate nostalgia. They played on streets celebrating Confederate leaders, swam in a whites-only pool surrounded by an exquisitely manicured golf course. They graduated, secured jobs working for companies owned by the families that lived in the shadow of Confederate generals, and started to amass the kind of wealth that might allow them to buy their own homes on Monument Avenue someday.

And in due time, they were welcomed into the city’s white elite as members of the Commonwealth Club, where they raised glasses to Jefferson Davis alongside senators, governors, and federal judges.

Richmond’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has been a lightning rod for the city, attracting pro-Confederate demonstrators such as members of the Tennessee-based group New Confederate States of America, pictured here being separated from counterprotesters by police in 2017.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

How cheap real estate liberalized Richmond

One of the ironies of Richmond’s history, and of the recent history of much of the urban South, is that capitalism is now helping to tear down the racist culture it helped build. As the makeup of Southern cities changes, part of what’s driving the changes are “just the trends of the economy of the United States,” says Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a history professor at the University of Dayton.

Richmond offers something that simply cannot be found in the nation’s largest and most prosperous cities: cheap real estate. Employers can rent office space for a fraction of what they’d pay in places like New York or Washington, DC, making Richmond an especially attractive area for businesses looking to expand. And these businesses’ employees can rent a comfortable home for what it would cost to rent a single room in a group house in a major city. As the Virginia Business journal noted in 2017, “A one-bedroom apartment [in DC] can rent for as much as $2,221 compared to Richmond’s rate of $972. Overall, the cost of living in Richmond is 5 percent below the national average, and housing costs are 11 percent below the national average.”

Urban centers with warm weather and a low cost of living are an attractive package for young professionals trying to figure out where to build their lives. A lot of Southern cities are attracting people who are moving from places like Connecticut, New York, and Ohio. The effect of these migrants is fraught, as they are often gentrifiers, says Lawrence-Sanders, but they also “bring liberal politics with them.”

Many of the newcomers are white, but there’s also a “reverse-migration pattern of Black people moving back to the South,” including “millennials and Gen Xers who weren’t raised [there],” says Lawrence-Sanders. Often they are surprised — and dismayed — to discover Confederate monuments dotting the view from their new homes.

Black Lives Matter activists occupy the traffic circle around the statue of Robert E. Lee, now covered in graffiti, on June 13, 2020, in Richmond.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Additionally, the number of South Asians living in the American South almost tripled between 2000 and 2017, with much of the growth occurring in Richmond. As the New York Times noted in 2019, “Of the 10 metro areas that had the largest South Asian growth, five are in the South ... One of them was Richmond.”

Virginia, according to the Times, is now “the land of Indian grocery stores, Korean churches and Diwali festivals.”

This changing culture creates a kind of virtuous circle that attracts even more left-leaning professionals. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes, there’s “a well-known finding in political psychology that people who score high in a personality attribute known as ‘openness to experience’ tend to have more left-wing political opinions.” That is, the very sort of people who like living in diverse communities, appreciate a wide range of cuisines, or enjoy a glass of gingerbread stout aged in apple brandy barrels are also the same sort of people likely to recoil at Confederate monuments.

Moreover, many local activists are well aware of how their city is changing, and they view this change as a force they can tap into to fight the city’s old power structures.

Amy Wentz, for example, works with BLK RVA, a project promoting Black tourism in Richmond. When she attended meetings with local tourism officials, she says, their presentations would often feature a slide noting how many people came to Richmond each year to see the Confederate monuments.

The focus of these meetings, Wentz said, “is to bring in visitors.” And the city makes money off those visitors, even if those visits are driven by Confederate nostalgia.

But two can play at that game. Richmond’s Black community launched a film festival featuring Black filmmakers and a restaurant week highlighting Black-owned restaurants, among other things. As these events grew in popularity, Wentz said, they started to offer a counterbalance to Confederate tourism, showing that the city does not “have to highlight our painful history” in order to bring in tourist dollars.

A large group of demonstrators gather around the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond on June 2, 2020, as the nation exploded in protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Steve Helber/AP

Today, city officials not only have to weigh the cost of lost tourism dollars if they tear down the monuments but also consider whether Black tourists will be less likely to spend money in Richmond if they are confronted by an enormous statue of a Confederate general. “Black folks,” says Michael Dickinson, an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University in downtown Richmond, “have always understood the legacy of these monuments.”

The many businesses considering relocating to Richmond have also had to consider whether they wanted to move their headquarters to a city that so visibly celebrates a slave-holding past. “The idea that their clients or employees might not feel welcome,” Rev. Lee says, “creates a real problem for these companies.”

Monument Avenue has quickly become a financial liability for the city.

Movements are more powerful than people

Northam, the Democratic governor who gave the order to tear down the Lee statue — an order that will soon be carried out, in the likely event that the court order protecting the statue is lifted — is another unlikely champion of this cause.

In 2019, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper discovered that Northam’s medical-school yearbook page featured an image of two unknown men, one of whom was dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam at first confessed that he was one of the two men in the picture, but he later recanted this confession. A formal investigation by the university, Eastern Virginia Medical School, was unable to determine if Northam was one of the men in the photo.

A long list of Virginia luminaries, including Wilder (the former governor), members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, and both of the state’s Democratic US senators, called for Northam to step down. He did not.

Northam, says Lawrence-Sanders, came out of a culture where no matter what your politics were, they were “secondary to Confederate nostalgia.” But that culture is dead. The Democratic Party depends on African American votes, and more broadly on voters who see the Confederacy as a vile, racist slavocracy.

“Now that the Democratic Party has moved in this direction,” Lawrence-Sanders says, “it’s not surprising to me that Northam is there, too.” Northam fits within the broader context of past political leaders, such as President Lyndon Johnson and Chief Justice Earl Warren, who set aside their own racist pasts to advance racial justice. (Northam also picked lawyer Rita Davis, a descendant of enslaved African Americans, as his top legal counsel. She’s spent the last year building the case for removing the Lee statue.)

Black people have “always had to work within a system of politicians who do not personally like them,” Lawrence-Sanders adds. They ”gotta assume that’s how politics works, and take the wins.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) speaks during a news conference on June 4, 2020, in Richmond, during which he and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (left) announced plans to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

In a 2012 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist laid out an unusually narrow view of the presidency. “We are not auditioning for fearless leader,” he said of the presidential election. “We just need a president to sign” the legislation Republicans already supported. “Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States.”

It was a cynical quip, but Norquist was on to something. Political parties are more than just vehicles to work an executive’s will. They are coalitions made up of lawmakers, activists, policy experts, and ordinary voters, all of whom the executive depends on to make lasting changes. Presidents and governors are far from powerless to shape policy, but an executive who thumbs his nose at the people who got them their job is likely to have a singularly unsuccessful tenure in office.

In many ways, Northam is the Democratic mirror image of the man-with-enough-working-digits that Norquist hoped to elect in 2012. Whatever Northam may have done while he was a medical student, Northam as governor approved legislation expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of Virginians, barred LGBTQ discrimination, rolled back restrictions on abortion, signed several new gun regulations, and expanded voting rights. And that’s on top of the actions he’s taken against Confederate monuments.

Northam has governed as a fairly conventional liberal Democrat because that’s what his fellow Democrats require of him. Like any successful politician, he is responsive to demands from activists who help shape his party’s consensus.

And there is reason to hope that anti-racism activists will have an unusually large influence on Democratic leaders in the near future.

A problem that can no longer be ignored

Sally Belfrage’s account of her work during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi is an astonishing narrative of the danger civil rights workers faced to expose the violence of Jim Crow. Even the story of her “basic training” for this work is harrowing.

Hundreds of volunteers gathered in Ohio to be trained on how to educate Black children in Mississippi and register those children’s parents to vote.

These volunteers were taught to assume the fetal position when they were being beaten, using their arms to protect their heads. They were warned to avoid wearing sandals, and told that “a T-shirt will save you some skin if you are being dragged on your stomach.” And they role-played scenarios, such as what to do if pulled over by white state troopers on a lonely highway.

Bob Moses, the civil rights icon who led the training, was clear about what these volunteers were stepping into. “The way some people characterize this project,” he told them, “is that it is an attempt to get some people killed so that the federal government will move into Mississippi.”

The volunteers would surrender their own bodies — even their lives — to billy clubs, police dogs, and potentially even bullets in the hopes that someone up north would catch a glimpse of the violence and decide it could not continue.

Half a century later, racism, police violence, and similar American sins can no longer be ignored by powerful officials who would prefer not to see them. Protesters filled our nation’s streets for weeks after a video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes spread across the internet. Efforts to characterize the protesters as anarchic looters quickly faded as videos circulated of police brutalizing peaceful demonstrators. As of this writing, a Google spreadsheet compiled by many of these protesters includes more than 500 videos capturing alleged incidents of police misconduct against demonstrators.

“Those added technologies allow for Black voices to not be ignored, as they were in the past,” says Dickinson, the history professor.

The nation can no longer claim that the stories Black people have told for generations are not true. It can no longer dismiss threats to Black lives as a handful of isolated incidents. And as the nation comes to terms with the reality of Black life in the United States, it’s much harder for anyone to defend monuments to racism.

Just as Moses hoped that news of indefensible violence would sway the hearts of a nation, these recent images have reshaped public sentiment with shocking speed. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week found that 64 percent of Americans support the protests against police violence. And 52 percent of voters support taking down Confederate statues, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, compared with 39 percent in 2017.

Old Richmond, in other words, is staggering under a one-two punch. At the very moment the demographics of the community are transforming, violence and racism are losing their ability to thrive in the dark.

But removing the monuments is also the easy part. Richmond is a fundamentally different place than it was decades ago, when senators and governors plotted legislative strategy at the Commonwealth Club. The monuments are relics of a past that the vast majority of Richmonders now reject. The city will no longer celebrate slavery and racism on one of its most cherished streets. Children will no longer gaze up at the statue of Robert E. Lee and imagine him as a hero.

The image of George Floyd with the Black Lives Matter letters are projected onto the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10, 2020.
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The harder question is whether Richmond — and more broadly, the US — is willing to combat the legacy of racism when it also means providing “tangible things,” like affordable housing and high-quality schools, says Dickinson. “The larger conversation is how do we go about increasing equity for Black communities.”

The last man standing

There are two other statues in Richmond that I haven’t mentioned yet. The first was installed just last year at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, less than half a mile from Monument Avenue.

At the dedication for this monument, its sculptor, the Black artist Kehinde Wiley, described his first visit to Richmond. “When I came here, all those years back, and I saw Monument Avenue, and I saw some extraordinary sculpture,” he said. “People took a lot of time to make something powerful, beautiful, elegant. And menacing.”

Wiley’s statue, named “Rumors of War,” captures that sense of elegant power. Modeled after Richmond’s statue of J.E.B. Stuart, it depicts a Black man in a hoodie, riding off on horseback as if he were at the head of a mighty army, perhaps one that will soon vanquish its foes on nearby Monument Avenue.

Governor Northam Speaks At Unveiling Of Kehinde Wiley Statue At Virginia Museum Of Fine Arts
Kehinde Wiley’s statue “Rumors of War” was unveiled last year at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The work was inspired by Monument Avenue’s statues, which Wiley, who also painted the presidential portrait of Barack Obama, called “menacing.”
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The second statue is more unassuming. But it is also the only statue on Monument Avenue that points towards a more hopeful future.

Arthur Ashe, who grew up in Richmond, was one of the preeminent tennis stars of the 1960s and 1970s. Among other things, he was the first Black man to win the US Open and the first to win Wimbledon. Shortly before Ashe’s death in 1993, artist Paul di Pasquale met the tennis legend and decided to make a sculpture of him.

Wilder, who was then winding down his term as governor, saw a mock-up of the work and declared, “This statue needs to go on Monument Avenue.”

A battle to keep Ashe from integrating Monument Avenue ensued, making national headlines. City Hall received hundreds of calls protesting Wilder’s proposal. The president of a local “Heritage Preservation Association” called Monument Avenue “hallowed ground” and warned the statue should be placed elsewhere to avoid “violating the historic sensibilities of Richmond’s Confederate-American population.” Leonidas B. Young, the city’s African American mayor at the time, floated the idea of tearing down two former department stores to build “Arthur Ashe Park” as an alternative.

Volunteers use cleaning agents to scrub graffiti off the Arthur Ashe memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 17, 2020.
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

But Wilder’s view prevailed, and on July 10, 1996, Ashe became the sixth man honored on Monument Avenue.

If you are unaware of the political significance of Ashe’s statue, it is easy to drive by the statue today and see it as a non-sequitur. When di Pasquale spoke to Ashe about making the sculpture, the former tennis star was dying of AIDS. He told the artist to sculpt him as he was then, emaciated as he fought the terrible disease that took his life in 1993. Surrounded by statues of powerful men on powerful horses riding off to do violence in the name of upholding slavery, Ashe stands gaunt and surrounded by children, holding just two books and a tennis racket.

Very soon, however, the army of the Confederacy will finally be defeated. And Ashe — the only one worthy of the honor — will be the only person left on Monument Avenue.

Ian Millhiser is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he focuses on the Supreme Court and the Constitution. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, just a short drive away from Monument Avenue.

Future Perfect

Our love of orcas is making them miserable


Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future


How to talk to a loved one about their health

View all stories in The Highlight