Commission: ‘Monument Ave. cannot and should not remain exactly as it is’

RICHMOND, Va. -- The commission appointed by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney released its recommendations Monday, which called for the removal of the Jefferson Davis monument and adding context through signage to the other four statues featured on Monument Avenue that honor the Confederacy.

The 10-member Monument Avenue Commission underwent a yearlong review and public engagement process examining the Confederate statuary of Monument Avenue and submitted its 117-page report report to the mayor.

The report concludes with series of options recommended for consideration by city officials that suggest ways given the current legal climate in Virginia, “to determine how best to reconcile a particular landscape viewed as both sacred and profane.”

The commission called for the removal of the Jefferson Davis monument, pending the outcome of current litigation or changes in state law, and for a new monument at the site.

Jefferson Davis monument

“Of all the statues, this one is most unabashedly Lost Cause [sic] in its design and sentiment,” the commissioners wrote.

Other recommendations include:

  • Adding permanent signage that reflects the historic, biographical, artistic and changing meaning over time for each monument, to be drafted by prominent academic historians subject to approval by the Public Art or Planning Commissions.
  • Creating a permanent exhibit that takes a deeper historical look into the history of the monuments, creating a mobile app and new film and video features that ensure the narrative about Monument Avenue is “consistent and historically accurate.”
  • Engage Richmond’s arts community to create “new contemporary artistic works that bring new and expanded meaning” to Monument Avenue.
  • Commission a monument that commemorates the resilience of the formerly enslaved, such as a work dedicated to soldiers of the United States Colored Troops.

Mayor Stoney said he will take time to further study the report and urged others to do the same.

“Richmond has a long, complex and conflicted history, and the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue represents a shameful part of our past,” Mayor Stoney said. “As I have said before, the statues on this beautiful street are Lost Cause myth and deception masquerading as history. They are monuments to Jim Crow that do not reflect the qualities of inclusivity, tolerance and equality we celebrate as values in our city today. The Commission’s report is unequivocal in its affirmation that there is an overwhelming desire and belief they should not remain as they currently are. Something needs to change, and I could not agree more.”

The commission was formed in June 22, 2017, with the purpose to engage the public and explore ways to add context to existing Confederate statuary and suggest ideas for new monuments.

More than 500 people attended the first public meeting on August 9, 2017.

Then, on August 12, a Unite the Right nationalist rally erupted in violence in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring dozens.

After Charlottesville, Stoney expanded the scope of the commission to consider removal and/or relocation of monuments. He expressed his personal belief that the monuments should be removed and/or relocated.

A public presentation of the report to City Council by co-chairs Coleman and Kimball will be scheduled later this summer. The full report submitted to the mayor is available to the public and can be found on the website, monumentavenuecommission.org.

The commission received more than 1,800 letters and emails and solicited feedback from more than 1,200 people in public forums. Commission members, all volunteers, were not compensated and spent their own time and money to participate. The Monument Avenue Commission does not have legal authority and its report is not binding on city government.

Public opinion

Even at the monument opinions differed.

"It's impressive," said Scott Pitzer, after looking at the Jefferson Davis monument with his wife.

The pair traveled to Richmond from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

"We came to Monument Avenue to see the monuments," Pitzer said.

Pitzer said he wants the monument to stay put.

"I'm a Yankee, but I think it's worth keeping," Pitzer said.

John Donegan, who said he frequently passes by the Jefferson Davis statue, said the commission's recommendations are moving the city in the right direction.

"I think it's great. I think it's been a long time coming," Donegan said.

Stoney said he will review the recommendations before advocating for anything to City Council.

"I always said that I would not shed a tear if I woke up one day and the Jefferson Davis Monument was gone," Stoney said.

And, despite saying he felt all the Confederate monuments should be removed from the street, he will not suggest anything outside of what the commission endorses.

"Cities normally get in trouble when they do not respect the recommendations of commissions like this," Stoney said.

We asked the Mayor how the city would pay for any potential changes, and he said the city would keep the fiscal impact in mind when making any changes.

Key narrative excerpts from the report, shared by the mayor's office:

“The statues on Monument Avenue have been a source of pride and shame for the City’s residents from the time of their installations. As the city has become more ethnically, politically and socioeconomically diverse, tolerance for the monuments’ artistic and cultural meaning has shifted over time. In essence it is a question of whether or not Monument Avenue reflects the citizenry and its values. It is for these reasons the commission was formed and tasked to determine how best to reconcile a particular landscape viewed as both sacred and profane.”

“In the course of the work, it became abundantly clear the majority of the public acknowledges Monument Avenue cannot and should not remain exactly as it is. Change is needed and desired. The public offered many fascinating ideas, and the majority seemed to favor a multi-faceted approach.”

“The sanitizing of textbooks in Virginia persisted well into the late twentieth century. It should be no surprise, then that the Commission heard such opinions in our listening sessions, despite several generations of academic scholarship that have largely corrected the historical record.”

“During the course of the meetings, it became abundantly clear that there were a number of historical inaccuracies being repeated by the public throughout the public meeting process about a number of topics related to the monuments. The Commission drew on the collective historical knowledge and collections of the Commonwealth’s preeminent state historical institutions, resulting in the website “On Monument Avenue” (onmonumentave.com). Likewise, the Commission drew on the collective research and publications of the scholarly community and other documented studies of Confederate memorialization.”

“We hope that the history presented here and on the Commission’s Website “On Monument Avenue” provides citizens with a common base of knowledge for discussing Monument Avenue and other examples of Confederate memorialization in the City of Richmond. The history also supports telling the story of the avenue in a variety of styles of interpretation and creating a robust dialog with the monuments. What the history cannot do is provide a definitive answer to the question of whether the monuments are appropriate as a representation of the city and its residents.”

The report also contains an Appendix that includes a number of source documents that may be helpful, including:

  • The Mayor’s initial remarks establishing the commission (Appendix A)
  • State laws governing Confederate Memorials (Appendix B)
  • City of Richmond Attorney Legal Opinion on the Monuments (Appendix C)
  • Data on Public Engagement