The candidates for governor of Virginia, which has more Confederate tributes than any other state, say the monuments to men who fought for the South during the Civil War need more context. But they disagree over whether the statues should be removed from prominent public places such as Richmond's Monument Avenue.
“Virginia has always been at the forefront of history,” Republican Ed Gillespie said at the Sept. 19 gubernatorial debate. “That doesn’t mean that Virginia has always been on the right side of history.”
It is with that sentiment that he feels better historical context should be applied to the existing monuments. Democrat Ralph Northam, on the other hand, would rather see the monuments placed elsewhere.
“If someone wants to look at the statues, they can, but if not, they’re [the statues] not glaring them in the face,” Northam said in a gaggle of reporters after the debate. “That’s not only important for our generation right now, but it’s important for future generations. We live in a very diverse society. That means we need to be inclusive. We need to be sensitive to everybody’s feelings.”
While Northam is in favor of moving monuments to museums, he said he does consider their existence important.
"We need to remember the painful aspects of history, and not omit them simply because they are difficult to discuss,” Northam said.
According to data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 1,503 symbols related to the Confederacy in the U.S., including monuments, road names, named courthouses and state holidays. Virginia, as the former capital of the Confederacy bears more symbols than any other state, with 223. Talk about what to do with Confederate monuments has emerged as an issue in the gubernatorial race.
The monuments were erected after the Civil War — many during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws—but in Virginia, there are 11 Confederate memorializations, such as monuments, bridges and schools, erected from 1970 to 2014.
Due to an increase in protests about the issue across the country, several cities have begun to remove Confederate statues and plaques.
Over the summer, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney launched a commission to examine what actions can be taken regarding the city’s iconic Monument Avenue, which is lined with statues of prominent Confederate figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission is still underway and with upcoming gubernatorial and House of Delegates elections, the fate of Richmond’s statues remains unclear.
Should he become Virginia’s next governor, Northam is interested in expanding monumental representation through the addition of other historical figures.
"Every community takes their own journey on race, but in order to be a more inclusive society, we need to elevate the parts of our complicated history that have all too often been ignored,” Northam said.
For Northam, that means memorializing people such as Barbara Johns, whose activism helped in the Supreme Court’s ruling to desegregate schools, and Samuel Wilbert Tucker, who was the leading attorney for the NAACP in Virginia during the 1960s.
"It is why the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slaves at Fort Monroe is so important to commemorate,” Northam said. “And we must do so in a way that helps spur a conversation about the more painful parts of our history."
A Sept. 19 news release stated that Gillespie’s position on Virginia’s historical monuments “has remained clear and consistent. When it comes to local monuments, he believes those decisions should be left to the cities and counties that control them.”
Control of the bronze men on Monument Avenue falls under two banners. The Robert E. Lee monument is owned by the state of Virginia, and as such qualifies as state property, while the others are controlled by the city of Richmond.
“While a new governor or legislature could conceivably pass and sign laws that place restrictions or remove restrictions on what can be done with them, as things currently stand, regardless of who is the next governor, the city’s options may be subject to an existing state law or ongoing legal challenges to monuments in other parts of the state,” said Jim Nolan, Stoney’s press secretary.
According to Nolan, the Monument Avenue Commission will hold an organizational meeting next month, which the public is invited to attend. The date and time has yet to be announced.