What should happen next on Monument Avenue?
Throughout Richmond, Confederate monuments have been removed from their pedestals. The plinths that once supported statues along Monument Avenue to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and J.E.B. Stuart are now empty. And the grassy circle beneath the Robert E. Lee statue has become a place of activism — and community — for protesters following the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
What should happen next on Monument Avenue? VCU News spoke with four faculty members with expertise in art, design, history and literature about the future of the famous street. Here are their thoughts, in their own words:
Shermaine M. Jones, Ph.D., Department of English, College of Humanities and Sciences
Jones, an assistant professor, teaches African American literature and African and Afro-Caribbean literature and has written on the civil rights movement.
In thinking about this question of what should happen on Monument Avenue following the removal of the Confederate statues, I am reminded of a compelling and pedagogically rich moment in a work of poetry that I often teach. In “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Claudia Rankine reproduces the hauntingly familiar photograph “Public Lynching,” depicting the Aug. 7, 1930, lynching of J. Thomas Shipp and Abram S. Smith by a white mob in Marion, Indiana.
However, Rankine removes the hanging bodies of the young Black men turning the eye of the viewer away from the spectacle of violence unto the crowd of onlookers pointing to an empty space in the sky. Confronting the spectators, the viewer wonders what made lynching such a mundane occurrence that this photograph could have easily been a depiction of a harmless community social. I believe a similar work of drawing our attention to the empty space in the sky may be an appropriate approach to reimagining Monument Avenue.
There is power in keeping the absence of these Confederate statues present on Monument Avenue. In maintaining the empty pedestals that once upheld these monuments of white supremacy, we commemorate the decadeslong struggle to have them removed. These pedestals, decorated with colorful Black Lives Matter graffiti and other cogent messages that confront and contextualize the history of the statues, must be preserved in their current form as a testament to the fact that these spaces were always contested.
This time we turn our eyes to a different crowd, not an angry white mob but the thousands of Black and brown people with their white allies who peacefully gathered and protested; the people who reclaimed the space of the Robert E. Lee statue as Marcus-David Peters Circle. Let the remnants of the confrontation remain; that is a story worth venerating.
Camden Whitehead, School of the Arts
Whitehead, an associate professor of interior design, spearheaded the 2019 exhibit “Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion,” a multiyear effort and national ideas competition to reimagine Monument Avenue.
I believe that we focus the emotion created by [recent] tragic events — including the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the 2015 murders of parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis — into thoughtful, rational and intentional actions on Monument Avenue. We have a tremendous opportunity to transform Monument Avenue into a street that reflects the values and aspirations of the city and its citizens while remembering that the street has both a national identity as an exemplary urban space and an extremely local identity as the front yard of hundreds, if not thousands, of Monument Avenue residents.
We should engage in continuous and broad community conversations about the future of Monument Avenue. These conversations should involve the entirety of Richmond in a way that acknowledges the complex role and presence of Monument Avenue. Monument Avenue is a symbol, a regional traffic artery, a grand boulevard, a park, a front yard. Monument Avenue holds memories, both constructive and divisive.
We need to engage design professionals to provide a vision for Monument Avenue so that we take full advantage of the opportunity before us. Urban planners, architects, landscape architects, artists and designers should be completely engaged in community conversations to listen and provide guidance and assistance to the formulation of a community vision. Monument Avenue is 5.4 miles long. It extends from its intersection with Lombardy Street to its intersection with Horsepen Road. It connects the city with Henrico County. It is punctuated with intersections of local and national significance.
There should be an organizing principle, an idea if you will, that guides the future evolution of Monument Avenue. Monument Avenue's public spaces should be realized over time based on a clear and enduring vision. It should accommodate what we share and how we differ. I am hopeful that through its construction, planting and programming, Monument Avenue can become a catalyst of constructive community dialogue and engagement.
As a postscript, Monument Avenue should not be designed by Richmond City Council or the mayor. We should not mistake leadership with ownership.
Michael L. Dickinson, Ph.D., Department of History, College of Humanities and Sciences
Dickinson, an assistant professor, is an expert in African American history, colonial and early republic America, slavery and Black Atlantic history. His research examines enslaved Black lives and communities in 18th- and 19th-century cities. He spoke to VCU News in June about Virginia’s recognition of Juneteenth.
The majority of Richmonders have decided that now is the time to remove most, if not all, of the Confederate monuments from Monument Avenue. As many people ask what is next for these monuments, it appears most fitting for the majority of Richmonders to also decide what their ultimate fate should be. Certainly, these statues are historical artifacts, so they retain value in reminding us of historical oppression, historical lessons and societal progress. But the question is how to properly have these structures fulfill these important roles with much needed historical context. Museums act as ideal spaces for just this kind of task — institutions where the historical value of artifacts can be fully realized without supporting, implicitly or explicitly, the political and social agendas that artifacts may have sought to advance.
Simply put, museums serve as spaces where the history can be appreciated and communicated without advancing false narratives or reifying oppressive intent. This is the type of work that public historians and museum staff are well-versed in undertaking. Of course, such a plan would require finding a local or state institution willing to accept the monuments. But again, I believe it is important for the Richmond community to come together to have a meaningful and civil dialogue about what steps to take next, whether that means sending these Confederate monuments to museums or an alternative idea. I believe that our community is more than up to the task.
Melanie Buffington, Ph.D., School of the Arts
When Buffington, an associate professor and interim department chair of art education, led teacher workshops in 2016 on “Landmarks of American History and Culture” to develop curriculum on the legacy of the Civil War, she was struck by how many teachers had learned, and were teaching to their students, the “Gone with the Wind” or the Lost Cause version of the war, asserting that the cause of the Confederate states was just and heroic.
To have lectures from historians, and to visit the Civil War sites, and to learn the Civil War and Reconstruction was not the way the teachers knew it to be was very eye-opening for them. The monuments symbolize white supremacy. The killings of primarily young Black men at the hands of police, the protests and the push to have the monuments come down, I see them as connected.
[Changes to Monument Avenue] shouldn't stem from one person or a few people's voices. It needs to be much broader than that. Short term, we should have a series of public meetings and some form of digital public voting [of submissions and ideas]. We should survey people of different ages and demographics, so we can understand what different people are looking for in a public space. We shouldn’t be thinking of permanent designs right now. We should be thinking temporary [designs and installations] and asking people what are the temporary things that could be interesting. Maybe a series of one-year works of art, so that there's a reason to keep coming back. Maybe it's an annual contest and we use it to promote tourism and try to raise our profile as a city. I don't know that many people saw a reason to come back over and over and over before.
Monument Avenue doesn’t have to be about anything, but I would encourage the artists to make it relevant to whatever was happening at that time or maybe highlighting a different aspect of Richmond every year. It doesn’t have to be a sculpture. It doesn’t have to be loud. It can be a grassy area.
It's really important that we continuously rethink who has been allowed on Monument Avenue and who was not allowed, and make sure it can become a place where more and more people can feel comfortable.