Hopeful Change in Richmond

On this July 4th, Richmond, VA, my home and birthplace, is a changed city.  Restaurants, gyms, and barbershops shuttered for months tiptoe towards normality, masked shoppers courteously dodge each other in the stores, and for more than a month, protestors have marched every day and night proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, their efforts too often marred by an aggressive and militarized police force that only serves to underline their protests against police brutality.  The monuments to Confederate generals on Monument Avenue are coming down, something that seemed daring to imagine in the story published in my collection Last Rites a year ago.

As I told it, the Confederate ghosts, condemned to haunt their monuments, taunted each other, Jefferson Davis predicting that A.P. Hill’s little traffic island plinth in North Richmond would come down first as a test case before the toppling of all the equestrian statues on Monument Avenue.  But as it happened, General Hill got the last laugh, his statue still standing, while those on Monument Avenue fall like dominoes.  Not that he hasn’t been targeted.  Marchers have demonstrated at his feet, and one of the ugly events of the past month occurred there, when an anti-protestor ran his car through the crowd.  Fortunately, no one was hospitalized, and the culprit was arrested.  But after more than a month of nightly marches, a bronze and pigeon-bombed A.P. Hill still stands athwart the leafy environs of Northside.  The city has recognized his unique status, because unlike the Confederates who have been toppled, Hill is not just memorialized but buried inside his plinth.  Before his statue is dismantled, something must be decided about what to do with his remains.  Because his corpse stands inside it, the Hill monument may yet survive the current purge. 

As will hundreds of other testaments to the Confederacy here in Richmond.  Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett lie among 27 Confederate generals and 18,000 enlisted men in the shadow of a 90-foot granite pyramid erected in their honor at Hollywood Cemetery.  The Daughters of the Confederacy will continue to place confederate flags atop their graves.  The perverse Tiffany stained glass window of Robert E. Lee (as Moses) amidst angels in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Grace Street, will remain, as will the White House of the Confederacy (where Stonewall Jackson’s bullet-torn jacket is reverently displayed), the Civil War Museum at the old Tredegar Iron Works, where so many of the Confederate cannons were forged, the old Confederate convalescent home and chapel on the VMFA grounds, and the townhouse on Franklin Street where Lee licked his wounds after the war. 

Those critics who have complained that Richmond will lose its tourism dollars from Civil War history buffs now that the Monument Avenue statues are coming down are no doubt mistaken.  This city is permeated with the war and its ultimate cause.  Consider, for instance, the Slave Trail to the razed Lumpkins Jail site; consider Belle Isle, where hundreds of Union soldier POW’s starved and died of dysentery; consider the ruined half bridge on the James, a reminder of the burning of Richmond, ordered by the Confederates themselves, as they fled south at the end of the war. 

Consider, too, the national park battlefields dotting the area: Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill, and within an hour’s drive Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.  Those battlefields would seem to be likely relocation sites for the Monument Avenue statuary.  I have mused about remounting General Lee on his noble horse Traveler, at Petersburg, pointed west towards surrender at Appomattox.  General Hill, a reckless warrior and a virulent and abusive racist (though in my story a long ghostly pergatory has mellowed him somewhat), may deserve no monument at all.  Perhaps his corpse will, as my story suggests, eventually lie without fanfare in some family plot near his birthplace in Culpeper. 

And perhaps the time will come when we can perceive the blight of slavery and its ongoing aftermath, the holocaust visited on Native Americans (and its ongoing aftermath), the continued unequal treatment of women, and the persecution of all those “othered” people (immigrants, LBGTQ folk, those with disabilities) in a clear-eyed and fully informed light that leverages our history towards honest reflection and action.  Perhaps as the ghost of A.P. Hill in my story concludes, we may eventually recognize both the dream and ideal that we claim for our nation, and acknowledge and atone for the horrors perpetrated in their name across the centuries. 

If the upheaval this year in Richmond and around the globe can do more than topple racist monuments, if this long-suppressed fury can be harnessed to reconciliation and reparation, in the name of a more equitable nation, in the name of recognizing all people as our brothers and sisters deserving of the rights penned by that most complex and troubling Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, then perhaps, too, the remaining vestiges of the war that for a time split our nation in half, a war with ghosts that haunt us still, can play a role in reminding us of what can happen when we let fear and greed sour to hate, serving as cautionary guideposts towards a better way marked by hope, kinship and justice.  Or not.  As always, it’s up to us.  Stay well and safe this Independence Day, friends.

Image by Richmond Times Dispatch

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