It’s easier to remove a flag than to tear down a monument. But we’ve been forced to confront the idea by tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. Those who say move the statues to a museum speak of a massive undertaking that I doubt Richmond is prepared for. What museum? Certainly not the Museum of the Confederacy, because it’s too small. Nobody can find it anyway, tucked away in the belly of VCU Medical Center where it doesn’t belong.
If the SR-71 Blackbird can be moved from the airport to the Science Museum of Virginia, surely Gen. Robert E. Lee can ride off into a museum of some sort, or perhaps the sunset. Better still, souvenir collectors could gather the pieces to display them in their family rooms along with other artifacts of the past.
Bad idea. It is a magnificent statue.
Lee is a dramatic event on Monument Avenue. Perhaps it shouldn’t be there, but if not that … what? We can’t replace it with tulips and get the same effect. We need something major, something that we revere and proudly show to visitors.
The last monument to be added to Monument, amid a flurry of debate and considerable criticism, was that of Arthur Ashe. It’s tiny compared to that of Lee. But its significance is great.
I knew Arthur Ashe briefly. Many years ago we taped a promotional announcement for the Virginia Home for Boys. I was excited to work with him, but found him distant, not that friendly. When he left the recording session I hung around and played basketball with the boys, wondering why Ashe was in such a hurry to leave. Of course none of us knew then that he was struggling with AIDS, the result of a faulty blood transfusion. But now I fully understand why he was in a different frame of mind.
I consider Ashe a great man. Sadly his greatness never would have been known had he not been a tennis star. It was that popularity that caused others to look at his life, and understand that as he lay dying, he spent what energy he had left studying French. His intellect and drive would have justified a monument without tennis.
Another possible monument might be for Thomas Cannon, a pauper, no sports celebrity, a lowly postal worker who lived his life, when he wasn’t attending to his dying wife, spending what little income he had helping others who were worse off. He was a Mother Theresa figure in Richmond. Cannon didn’t seek attention. But he was discovered and featured on national television by Oprah Winfrey.
It’s difficult to separate anyone from their times. When the Lee statue was erected, he was considered the most noble of his day, at least by Southerners who weren’t black. As years passed the rest of us began to question his greatness. Now, few people would erect a statue of Lee if we didn’t already have one. Perhaps it’s time to look for another great person to replace him. Someone along the lines of Cannon. There are great Virginians among us but deciding who they are is more difficult.
I was in Moscow in 1991 when precious statues were torn down and relegated to an obscure storage site. Stalin among them. Russia apparently doesn’t miss them, though Lenin’s tomb wasn’t on the hate list. Statues were changed because Russia changed. What once was great no longer was. Now the focus is on us and it’s time for serious thought. Most of the local figures that populate the news are noncandidates. Joe Morrissey won’t do. Neither will Sa’ad El-Amin, or a host of other one-time leaders who showed their true colors without our digging to find them.
When the rebel flag came under serious fire recently many looked around and said, what’s next? Jeff Davis Highway, Lee-Davis High School? The list is long. Perhaps too long. Of course another option is to hope this all blows over. Most things do. I would guess we’ll be debating the Lee statue longer than we’ve debated replacing The Diamond. That’s who we are. It takes forever to fix what’s broke. Sometimes we choose not to fix it and we look the other way.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between a monument and a flag. A monument represents the past. A flag says we still feel that way. S
Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @genecoxrva.