Virginia’s Confederate Statues Betray the Commonwealth’s Claimed Gentility
Former Virginia governor and Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder is right.
The Confederate statues that line a portion of Monument Avenue aren’t the real issue. Yes, they inflame passions. They also have an uncanny ability to expose the enduring power of Virginia’s “Lost Cause” mythology, as evidenced in two lawsuits filed to stop removal of the Robert E. Lee statue.
But Wilder said the big issue isn’t the bronze monuments to a failed slave-owners’ rebellion. For him, it’s education. And not just money for teachers or bricks and mortar.
Rather, Wilder said what’s needed most is “telling the damn truth in all our history about what has happened for the 400 years black people have been here!”
That’s asking for far more than the state’s haggard Standards of Learning can possibly deliver. That’s partly because “telling the damn truth” will take more than a school year, or even an entire K-12 stint in the classroom.
But complaining about the depth of the problem doesn’t solve it. So let’s take up one thing Wilder suggested: history. Yes, it’s a huge topic. Let’s start with snippets (with the understanding there’s a lifetime’s worth of subjects to cover).
One is an outsider’s view of Virginia, and Richmond in particular. Consider Charles Dickens, who visited Richmond in March 1842 as part of a tour of the United States and Canada. After a bumpy, soggy and occasionally harrowing coach ride to Fredericksburg, Dickens took the train to Richmond. It’s in this stretch of the journey he sees and feels the evil in the air:
In this district, as in all others where slavery sits brooding (I have frequently heard this admitted, even by those who are its warmest advocates:) there is an air of ruin and decay abroad, which is inseparable from the system.
The supposedly cosmopolitan residents of Richmond are not immune:
The same decay and gloom … hover above the town of Richmond. There are pretty villas and cheerful houses in its streets, and Nature smiles upon the country round; but jostling its handsome residences, like slavery itself going hand in hand with many lofty virtues, are deplorable tenements, fences unrepaired, walls crumbling into ruinous heaps. Hinting gloomily at things below the surface, these, and many other tokens of the same description, force themselves upon the notice, and are remembered with depressing influence, when livelier features are forgotten.
Dickens soon left town “with a grateful heart that I was not doomed to live where slavery was, and had never had my senses blunted to its wrongs and horrors in a slave-rocked cradle.”
Richmonders bristled at the description of their city and its institution, with James Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger calling Dickens “a low-bred man.”
Some still bristle today when reminded that the Civil War was fought to defend the source of the decay and gloom Dickens witnessed, preferring instead a gauzy narrative to explain away the horrors.
Cover photo by Martin Falbisoner