On Monument Avenue

On Monument Avenue | Controversial From the Start


John Mitchell, Jr. abstained from voting on the appropriation of city money to fund the unveiling parade for the Robert E. Lee monument in 1890. Mitchell, a city alderman for Jackson Ward, a banker, and editor of the African American newspaper the Richmond Planet noted, tactfully, that he “was a great admirer of General Lee,” but demurred “by asking that those who wore the ‘clanging chains’ should be allowed to keep silent and not vote.” Other Council members thought that the city had no right “to get up a big parade to benefit only a certain class of people.”

In the 1890s, at the height of Confederate memorialization in Richmond, not everyone felt the urge to celebrate, and different people expressed their dissent in different ways. The Lee Monument commemorations had meaning to many people in 1890 beyond the simple admiration for a dead hero. Statues of Confederates, then, were controversial from the start.

Mitchell, as editor, mocked the decades-long fundraising efforts:

“The people of the South had to grunt and groan to raise a few thousand dollars for the Lee monument…the men who talk most about the valor of Lee, and the blood of the brave Confederate dead are those who never smelt powder or engaged in a battle. MORAL:–Go to the Northern man for money; the Southern man for sentiment.”

At other times, he used genial observation to make critical points. At the Lee memorial unveiling in 1890, Mitchell witnessed a particularly unperturbed gentlemen, “an old colored man,” as Mitchell said, who “after seeing the mammoth parade of ex-Confederates … and gazing at the rebel flags, exclaimed, ‘The Southern white folks is on top—the Southern white folks is on top!’” Mitchell continued, “After thinking for a moment a smile lit up his countenance as he chuckled with evident satisfaction, ‘But we’ve got the government! We’ve got the government!’” Historian Kirk Savage suggests that the man, while wary of the ascendency of the local Democratic Party with a segregationist agenda, still saw hope for African Americans that the federal government remained in the hands of the party of Lincoln.

Mitchell, whose strategic politeness was more circumspect than confrontational, sighed. “The Negro was in the Northern processions on Decoration Day and in Southern ones, if only to carry buckets of ice-water. He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down. He’s black and sometimes greasy, but who could do without the Negro?” While Mitchell used studied wit and an air of resignation in order to navigate an increasingly ominous political and racial environment in Richmond, he let others, who did not have to bow to racial conventions in Richmond, speak harsher words.

For instance, Mitchell excerpted in the Planet a speech by Iowa Congressman J.P. Dolliver, who lamented that “in the throng [the audience at the Lee Monument unveiling] were doubtless aged men and women who had heard the jargon of the auctioneer repeated over their defenceless [sic] heads.” Dolliver concluded, “the statue at Richmond seems like a weak and clumsy protest against the flood of years.”

Monument building even revived tension between reconciled enemies.

Since 1884, the Robert E. Lee Camp of Confederate veterans had happily communed with Grand Army of the Republic [G.A.R.], a United States veterans organization. They even shared office space with the G.A.R.’s Richmond branch, the Phil Kearney Post, and frequently visited reunions from New Jersey to Chicago.

The Lee Camp welcomed donations worth thousands of dollars from numerous G.A.R. posts to build their Confederate Soldiers Home on Richmond’s western outskirts.

The friendship between the Lee Camp and the G.A.R. soured in 1894 when the Reverend Robert Cave delivered a particularly strident political defense of the Confederacy alongside an attack on the Union at the unveiling of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Libby Hill. The Columbia Post of the G.A.R. in Chicago dispatched a public letter to the Lee Camp inquiring whether the ex-Confederates endorsed Cave’s unreconciled language. After some deliberation the Lee Camp wrote back that, indeed, they did. Several years passed before Lee Camp and G.A.R. veterans were reconciled, yet again, and began showing up at each other’s reunions.

While Mitchell’s wit and circumspection and the G.A.R.’s ruffled feathers indicated that the claims that Confederate memorialists made about their virtuous histories did not go undisputed in their day, a young historian then graduating from Harvard University delivered a more forceful rejoinder.

Where the monument builders saw “stalwart manhood and heroic character,” W.E.B. DuBois perceived “moral obtuseness and refined brutality.” In his 1890 Harvard commencement address, delivered just days after the Lee Monument celebration, DuBois spoke about Jefferson Davis.

DuBois had no particular quarrel with Davis, whom he called “a naturally brave and generous man,” but instead criticized Davis as a representative type—a “Strong Man,” acting out a selfish “Individualism coupled with the rule of might,”—that societies DuBois called Teutonic tended to admire. Societies like the United States that lifted up “Strong Men,” DuBois said, pursued merciless nationalistic agendas that “advance[d] a part of the world at the expense of the whole,” and harbored “the overweening sense of the I and the consequent forgetting of the Thou.”

According to DuBois, Davis had championed a “Strong Nation,” as an American who advocated for the acquisition of Native American lands “by murdering Indians,” and by taking a heroic role in “a national disgrace called by courtesy, the Mexican War.”  As Confederate president, DuBois said, Davis capped his career as “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free.”

DuBois, thus, turned upside down the claims of the people who erected statues on Monument Avenue. Where they frequently characterized their heroes as “knightly,” and representative of the self-sacrifice required in a virtuous society, DuBois warned against conquest, brutality, and the perils of confusing military prowess with moral righteousness.

Mitchell’s barbs reflected a vigilance about racial conventions in the ascendant Jim Crow state, the G.A.R. worried that Confederate memory stoked hostility, and DuBois identified a poisonous strain in American civilization. They, along with many others, understood that the monuments had more to say about race, citizenship, and nationhood than at first appeared.