By Scott Malone
Residents of a predominantly African-American neighborhood have called on a city commission to recommend removing the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue.
“You can rest assured, these statues are coming down,” said Phil Wilayto of the Virginia Defenders of Freedom, Justice & Equality, a social justice organization.
Wilayto addressed Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission at a meeting Thursday evening at Fifth Baptist Church. The meeting was hosted by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which is sponsored by the Virginia Defenders group and advocates the removal of the Confederate statues.
Five members of the Monument Avenue Commission attended the meeting and listened to the community’s thoughts concerning what Richmond should do about the hot-topic issue.
About 30 people attended the meeting. At times, they were joking – and at other times, they were tearful, angry and emotionally raw about the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and other Confederate figures.
“There is no context where you can put my ancestors’ suffering,” said Sacred Ground member Joseph Rogers, his eyes tear-filled and voice shaking.
The commission said it has received about 1,300 comments so far about the statues. While some people want to remove them, others have suggested providing historical context by projecting images over the statues, placing explanatory signs or other objects around the feet of the statues or adding non-Confederate statues to Monument Avenue.
Attendees at the meeting offered additional ideas. One man suggested selling the statues to another locality that would install them in a park. Others suggested taking down the statues but leaving the pedestals, or removing the men from the statues and leaving the horses.
At moments, a sense of frustration could be felt directed toward the commission members.
“You are arguing over things little children already know,” said Chuck Richardson, a former City Council member. “You are caught in a political conundrum.”
Members of the commission reminded the audience that they cannot decide whether the statues will be removed. The commission’s job is to offer suggestions to Stoney. Then the issue would go to the Richmond City Council, which would need approval from the General Assembly to take down the monuments.
“If I did not think [Mayor Stoney] wanted us to do an honest appraisal, I would not be here,” said commission member Gregg Kimball, director of education and outreach for the Library of Virginia. “I wouldn’t completely give up on the political process.”
Citing moral obligations, many members of the audience urged the commission to advise Stoney to remove the statues. Commission members said that is one option being considered.
However, according to commission member Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Center in Richmond, the “Police Department strongly advised” against taking down the statues at this time due to the level of emotion on the issue.
Last September, protests and counterprotests were held in Richmond near the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.
Tensions seemed to simmer down as the meeting came to a close. Members of the commission said they hope to present their report to the mayor before Memorial Day. They thanked members of the Sacred Ground Project for hosting the event as well as those who voiced their opinions.
For more information or to submit comments to the Monument Avenue Commission, visitmonumentavenuecommission.org.