News & Features » Miscellany

Someday Richmond may remember it is something more than a relic of the Civil War.

Look Away, Dixieland


One hundred and fifty years later, we still can't shake off that unpleasant Civil War episode and move into the 20th century, much less the 21st century.

Removing Lee's portrait from the Floodwall has riled up the white folk, who demand the return of their St. Robert, a good man, they insist, who really didn't believe in slavery anyway. So, let me get this straight: He led the South into battle to preserve the Southern way of life, apparently for something he didn't actually believe in. What's up with that?

Richmond has a generous share of Revolutionary and Colonial history. John Marshall's house is downtown, next to the welfare office. The church where Patrick Henry gave his liberty or death speech is on Church Hill. You might not want to visit after dark.

Once you get past the Confederate graves in Hollywood Cemetery, there are three former presidents buried in there. I can't even think of who they are, and I've lived here 30 years. Pizza delivery men fear to enter the adjoining neighborhoods.

Then there's always Edgar Allan Poe, who never actually lived in the Poe House, but he may have walked by it. Ever been in that museum? Zzzzzzz.

Richmond hasn't made much of its Colonial past, obviously, so enamored are they about being the capital of the Confederacy. The White House of the Confederacy, which has the misfortune — or good fortune — of being smack-dab on the Medical College of Virginia's campus, is well-maintained. Monument Avenue is true to its name, and except for summer bikini babes and Frisbee tossers, the monuments are almost never defaced. Jefferson Davis stands stately in a semicircle of columns, and no one has ever dared put a dress on him in the dark of night, to re-enact his fleeing town. I read one baffled commentator who said he had never seen such a thing before, a street full of monuments to losers.

Not only were they losers, they lost with a home court advantage. Vietnamese armed with pungi sticks were more triumphant. And the rebels lost trying to slice up the United States to preserve a way of life where they bought and sold other humans to do their work for them. What's up with monuments to this?

Southerners will insist it wasn't about slavery at all, it was about states' rights, but what right was so important, so beyond compromise and discussion, it merited sending young men to their deaths? They don't want to admit it, but slavery was the big issue.

The obvious thing would be to put all this Civil War unpleasantness aside, bury it like turds in a litter box, and play up all that nice Colonial history. Williamsburg has done well with that gig. But Richmond's white folk just can't bear the shame of it, so they keep trying to turn it into something glorious. And it doesn't help that there's a market for it, that Civil War tourism brings in dollars, and people dress up in scratchy, uncomfortable clothes in the heat of summer and restage the battles, as if maybe, during one of the re-enactments, they'll fall through a hole in the time continuum and change the outcome. It reminds me of all the repeat customers for the "Titanic." Maybe if I see it one more time, Leonardo will pull himself up on that raft and live after all.

A hundred years after the war, Richmond again embarrassed itself by fighting school integration with excessive ugliness they called "Massive Resistance."The editorial writers who led the way are dying off now. As they fall, they are remembered, like the losing generals on the avenue, as courageous campaigners, not advocates of shameful behavior that spit in the face of a declaration that says all men are created equal.

After this second defeat, the white people departed Richmond for the suburbs. They fled in such numbers, they left the inner city of Richmond as burnt out and devastated as it had been a century before. The city tried to rope them back by expanding the city limits into Whitesville and grabbed a few zip codes here and there, but the counties would launch another war if the city kept trying.

Chesterfield County recoils at the thought of a city bus. (I personally want to keep soccer moms driving oversized SUVs out of my neighborhood.)

Richmond's city government was saddled with the problem of making the city prosperous when most of their constituents were not. We became distinguished mainly for our murder rate. Sixth Street Marketplace and Main Street Station failed. When there's equivalent shopping in the suburbs, who wants to pay for a parking spot and be greeted by a welcoming committee of peddlers, the homeless, meter maids and tow trucks? The Valentine riverside project failed. I think it had something to do with Reconstruction, a period of history with little sex appeal.

Richmond can't bring itself to admit that in order to save downtown, it has to make it attractive to white people again. Businesses and services need to be colorblind, and this isn't the case when you have blocks full of shops catering to ethnic-exclusive needs and tastes. There's room for that, but it can't be everything without in itself segregating the area.

No matter what you build downtown, you have to make it safe and accessible, day and night. You can't just assume those problems will solve themselves. Someone has to say the words no one wants to say, that the white people need to come back, and the black people need to share the power because they failed to produce the Utopia they thought they could. And they aren't going to be able to work together unless both give up something important to them — their pride in their blackness and whiteness.

Putting tennis star Arthur Ashe's cartoonish-looking statue on Monument Avenue — the one where he resembles Steve Urkle about to bash some children with his racket — is a good example of black pride run amuck. The obvious, perfect place for it was by the once-segregated tennis courts in the city, but to spit in the face of those crusty, unreasonable old line whities, they had to put it on Monument Avenue. So Christopher Columbus continues to stand at the entrance of Byrd Park (how come Byrd doesn't?) and overlook the tennis courts he didn't discover. It makes no sense.

And no one's coming to their senses as long as the white people keep seeing Richmond as the once and forever capital of the Confederacy. For that reason, Lee should stay off the flood wall, and so should Gabriel Prosser, the slave who plotted to kill all the whites and free the slaves. The more Civil War glorifying we do, the more we get counteractions like Juneteenth. And before you know it, there'll be a white Christmas and a black Christmas called Kwanza or something. What's next, separate water fountains?

For the floodwall, let's put up pictures of those presidents who are buried a block away. Then when we walk by, instead of getting riled up, we'll be able to say, "Who the heck is that?"

Mariane Matera is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Add a comment