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Your Heroine Here

The case for adding monuments to Monument Avenue.


Why should a handful of Confederate military heroes, Commodore Maury and Arthur Ashe be the only people honored on the avenue? Ashe is the lone native Richmonder represented. Surely there are more heroes — and heroines — deserving permanent recognition on the First Colony’s most famous street.

Imagine monuments that begin at the city limits, or even statues that continue into Henrico County. Maggie Walker at Malvern. Oliver Hill at Sauer. Lafayette at Lafayette.

We realize that in the former capital of the Confederacy, no change to anything comes without controversy. The disagreements that roiled around the 1996 Ashe addition to Monument still simmer.

Such potential strife has led people to perhaps abandon thoughts of any more monuments.

“I don’t think we’ve even discussed it,” says Alice M. Massie, a member of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society for the past six years who just rotated off its board. “Nobody’s brought it up to us.”

But the government red tape for new statues is fairly easy to slice.

The Richmond Planning Commission approves such monuments, says Public Works Department spokesman Bill Farrar. The commission can request advice from other city departments, such as the Public Arts Commission.

“If the Planning Commission denies a request, then there’s an appeals process to City Council, but the council doesn’t have to approve a monument,” Farrar says, adding that if one is donated the council must act to accept the donation. And if the city has to provide any money for monuments, the council must approve the expenditure.

But public art of this kind is difficult to accomplish, says sculptor Paul DiPasquale. He’s had experience. He designed the Ashe statue — not knowing it would go on Monument at all.

Coming to agreement, even on an uncontroversial site, is difficult, DiPasquale says. “I happen to think that the Ashe presentation works, and I like it,” he says.

Still, he says, the four-and-a-half mile avenue from Stuart Circle to Horsepen Road holds prime spots for statues. The wide medians in Henrico County practically cry out for statuary or some sort of public art. DiPasquale says perhaps the way to begin extending the avenue’s art would be to establish places that statuary could go before deciding whom to honor. Then every two years, or every decade, hold an open contest for proposals, with the caveat that judges could reject all the entries if they didn’t like them.

The main stretch of Monument can appear at first to be a single historical unit, an elaborate, unified statement of Confederate pride. But the avenue evolved over the years.

For 17 years, the only statue on the street was that of Robert E. Lee. Then in 1907, two more were dedicated in five days. Twelve more years passed until the unveiling of the Stonewall Jackson monument, and another 10 before the dedication of the Maury monument.

A man who worked as a 20-year-old on the Lee Monument would have been 59 when the statue of Matthew Fontaine Maury was erected.

City officials and developers laid out the avenue with their eyes fixed on history, and their hands confidently on their wallets. When Otway Allen donated the land for the Lee statue, he envisioned a monumental circle for a massive memorial. He also planned to sell the land around the circle for building lots, according to “Richmond’s Monument Avenue,” a 2001 book about the street by Sarah Shields Driggs, Richard Guy Wilson and Robert P. Winthrop.

Others followed Allen’s lead. Wirt Chesterman built a house in 1898 in the 1700 block of Park Avenue with a third-floor porch that had spectacular view of the Lee statue. But the view was obscured when the Lee Medical Building went up in 1950.

Some feel that Lee and his colleagues should remain the focal point of an amended Monument Avenue.

“Whoever goes on Monument Avenue should be a Confederate, be he black or white,” says Brag Bowling, immediate past president of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and an official in the national organization. “Monument Avenue should retain the theme of the Confederacy.”

“I would like to see the A.P. Hill Monument moved there,” Bowling says. That monument, at Hermitage Road and Laburnum Avenue, has a feature that the statues on Monument lack: A.P. Hill himself is buried underneath it. Bowling says his remains should be moved with the statue.

“I think that one of the interesting things about Monument Avenue that is so interesting is that it’s not about the Confederacy. It’s about heroes,” says Sarah Shields Driggs, one of the authors of “Richmond’s Monument Avenue.”

“I like the idea of Monument Avenue representing all Richmonders,” she continues, “and I like the idea of other monuments being there.”

Short of moving General Hill — or, as some have suggested, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — to the avenue, Richmond has prime candidates for canonization next to the generals, the commodore and the tennis star.

A suffragette. Until women gained the right to vote, no election in America could be decided by a majority of the adult population. Because election laws excluded most black people and almost all women, all the white men older than 21 couldn’t make a majority. Richmonder Lila Meade Valentine, a member of one the city’s most prominent families, led the charge in Virginia for women to gain the franchise. She also campaigned for better health and education in the city. She deserves a statue, but a more general, symbolic evocation of the suffragettes would be equally effective.

Maggie Walker. A black businesswoman and the first woman in America to found a bank. She served as vice president of the local NAACP and on the group’s national board. She was also a member of the Virginia Interracial Commission.

Gabriel. Also known as Prosser’s Gabriel, he was a literate, skilled slave who led an August 1800 plot for a revolt that aspired to capture Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk. It failed because of high water in the Henrico County gathering place and the nervous confessions of a few slaves. Had it succeeded it would have changed American history. Gabriel was hanged, as were dozens of the conspirators.

John Mitchell Jr. Editor and publisher of the Richmond Planet, the city’s black newspaper in Reconstruction and beyond. He also served on the Richmond City Council. He railed against lynching, white control of politics and segregation. He died in 1929.

William Mahone. Confederate general, railroad tycoon and United States senator. His political machine in the late 1870s and 1880s depended on a coalition of black and white voters for its power. “Billy Mahone would be a suitable candidate, but I don’t think he was considered among the upper echelon of Confederate generals,” Bowling says.

Pocahontas. Native American princess, daughter of Chief Powhatan. She aided colonists, including Capt. John Smith. She moved to Henrico in 1613. She converted to Christianity, was christened Rebecca and married Englishman John Rolfe a year later. She died during a trip to England in 1617. Her likeness appears on the Henrico County seal, so she’s a prime candidate for the swath of green that lies fortuitously in Henrico, DiPasquale says.

Nathaniel Bacon. In 1676, Bacon headed a rebellion against rulers in Jamestown. He relied on westerners in the colony, which at that time included frontier settlers who traded with Indians traders at what became Richmond. Historians used to see the rebellion as a 100-year precursor to the American Revolution.

Though it is customary to erect statues of the deceased, two names of living Richmonders come up in most any discussion of the future of Monument Avenue. And why not? Hank Aaron can pass himself on the way into Atlanta’s Turner Field, and Bill Clinton is forever teeing off in Ireland’s County Kerry.

Oliver Hill. Eminent civil rights lawyer. Graduated second in his class at Howard Law, just behind Thurgood Marshall. The first African-American to serve on the Richmond City Council since Reconstruction, and director of the state NAACP for 20 years. Lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which became part of the Brown v. Board of Education suit. Retired from legal practice in 1998, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the next year.

“I would say Oliver Hill is number one,” author Driggs says. “I think about Mr. Hill all the time, about how much [Brown v Board of Education] has changed our country, and how modest he is.”

L. Douglas Wilder. The first black elected governor in the United States. (In case you’ve wondered why Wilder is always described with this curious phrase — which is never explained — one P.B.S. Pinchback was governor of Louisiana for 35 days around New Year’s Day, 1873.) Quite possibly the first elected mayor of any race in modern Richmond.

Driggs says that after she completed her book, another local historian, Ann Hunter McLean, pointed out a passage from the Lee Monument dedication speech that could have served for the Ashe monument as well.

“At the time,” Driggs says, “the South was very interested in becoming part of the nation again. Southerners were playing down the martial aspects of the war and were talking about their heroes and what good men they were. They stressed their noble, virtuous characteristics rather than the fact they fought to preserve slavery.”

Col. Archer Anderson’s remarks at the base of the new Lee statue on May 29, 1890, included these words: “Let this stand as a memorial of personal honor that never brooked a stain. … Let this man, then, teach to generations yet unborn these lessons of his life. Let it stand, not as a record of civil strife, but as a perpetual protest against whatever is low and sordid in our public and private relations.” S

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