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Addressing the Wrong of Lost Cause Urbanism

NOTE: I wrote and submitted this blog three days before the events of August 11-12 an hour’s drive away in Charlottesville. Since then there has been much written about what to do with these statues and others in other cities. I stand by the comments made here. August 21, 2017.

Several southern cities are embroiled in controversies surrounding public sculpture celebrating the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds us that the Southern generals planted in our cities portray a false history and supplement the Ku Klux Klan’s program of terror and Jim Crow degradation. In his city the Confederate generals are being exiled to “a museum or other facility where they can be put in context.” Robert E. Lee Park in Charlottesville has been renamed Emancipation Park and its equestrian statue is now for sale. Here I present a review and suggestion from Richmond where a Commission is looking into the topic.

When Civil War veterans began to face the grim reaper the Cult of the Lost Cause began to place statues in cities. In Chicago in 1891 General U. S. Grant appeared in Lincoln Park astride his horse three years after Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ “Lincoln standing” started standing in the same park. Saint-Gaudens began a “Lincoln sitting” in 1908, but it had to wait until 1926 for land to be made from the lake for Grant Park.

Chicago was vigorously anti-slavery, but Richmond was second to New Orleans as a slave market. The grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia’s Capitol that served as the Confederacy’s Capitol already had a monumental sculpture group of George Washington and six other Virginia revolutionaries made in 1850-58. Nearby since 1875 was a standing statue of Stonewall Jackson by John Henry Foley donated by an “English Gentlemen.” Elsewhere places were found for other Lost Cause heroes. In 1891 General A. P. Hill, defender of Richmond, was reburied at one of his command posts with his statue atop a tumulus; it is now engulfed in a traffic circle. And across town General Robert E. Lee was intended for Libby Park’s romantic landscape overlooking the James River, but because a different site gained favor this one, that overlooked Confederate Navy operations and the last defense of the city, received a very tall Corinthian column in 1894 topped by a Johnny Reb representing Confederate Soldiers and Sailor.

Lee then became the proposed fixture of an 1888 land development scheme that extended the better residential distinct and would be fitted out for the most important Confederate figures. Eventually extending a mile and a half with a broad median with evenly planted trees, its flanking roadways attracting churches and large residences, many by important architects with circles for statues producing a Confederate Valhalla. Here, in order, we now meet the men on horseback: Jeb Stuart (1907), Lee (1890), Jefferson Davis (1907; standing because he was the President and not a warrior), and Stonewall Jackson (1919). The Cult had waned by 1929 when Matthew Fontaine Maury, Commander of the Confederate’s water defenses and oceanographer, the “Pathfinder of the Seas,” found a place farther down the Avenue.

For 67 years this spine through the good part of town remained unchanged until the first post Reconstruction African-American to be elected governor of any state managed to find a place for a fellow Richmonder, Arthur Ashe, the international tennis star who broke the sport’s racial barrier and tragically died prematurely. His podium stands at the very edge of the city limits where he urges children to read, read, read. And then this year, 31 year later, another barrier-breaking African American received her due. Maggie Walker (1864-1934), teacher, entrepreneur, banker, and millionaire, is now present in a standing statue not on the Avenue but in a tiny park between downtown’s main street and Jackson Ward. That is the site of her home, now a National Historic Site, and the former center of African American business and social life with the 1973 statue of Richmonder Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

And now Richmond has been stirred to address those Lost Cause heroes, reminding us again that cities are not merely art galleries or market places but theaters where individuals, then and now, work together in confronting the moral dimensions of life.

Johnny Reb up on the column and the General in the traffic circle seem unproblematic while the men with the greatest urban presence on one of America’s great streets dominate the issue. Some voices want to exile them, but from exile will the body politic’s discourse lose the salt that flavors the quest for extending liberty today and beyond? Others suggest leaving them in place and “contextualizing” them, but what “contextualizing” could hold its own against the statues themselves?

The controversy concerns the statues’ content, not their aesthetic quality. After people let beauty be in the eye of the beholder beauty lost its role as a complement to and completion of meaningful content, and meaningful content did not call forth beauty to add impact. Beauty became a nonpartisan issue. Why else can atheists and anti-Catholics be moved by Raphael’s and Titian’s altarpieces, Michelangelo’s Pieta, or Notre Dame in Paris or Saint Peter’s in Rome? And why else can works in Chicago and New York paid for with public money through the federal art program that devotes 0.5% of a federal building’s cost be considered art? Content is needed to fix Monument Avenue, but to be effective it needs art adequate for its job. Together, art and content can fulfill urbanism’s traditional role, which is to serve the common good, facilitate the pursuit of happiness, and serve justice.

Let me propose that rather than exiling these figures we add to Monument Avenue people who stood for the right, who helped vanquish that evil past, and who, today, urge us to follow a better path? Suppose four generous traffic circles were carved out of Monument Avenue and equipped with statues as impressive as those of the rebels. Who might they be? Here is the starter list to add to: Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Grant, Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The process of selecting the four would surely involve a robust discussion, one that would have to be conducted with good will, but doing so could forge a powerful unity in the community. With their presence Monument Avenue could become a glorious American Valhalla and not the problematic Southern one it is now, and this might make it a model for other cities to follow.   

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