On Monument Avenue

On Monument Avenue | Statues and the Politics of Memory (Part 2 of 2)


In a recent column, historian Jane Dailey explained why Virginia lacks a significant memorial to Confederate General William Mahone. In short, his postwar leadership of a successful biracial political movement foreclosed any chances that ex-Confederates would include him in their pantheon of heroes. Further, as Dailey noted how Lost Cause advocates used politics to shape the past, “we must recognize the crucial role played by the politics of memory in the assault on African American equality.”

The statues on Monument Avenue meant many things to many people. For some speakers and politicians, the history that the monuments represented was the past wielded as power. In the last post we explored the history of race relations written by ex-Confederates after the war. Here, we look at how many of them turned that past into politics. After emancipation and the popular tumults of the 1880s and 1890s, ex-Confederates used their history of race relations both as a bulwark against the erosion of their preferred social and racial hierarchies, and as part of a justification for marginalizing black voters at the end of the 19th century.

Former Confederate General Bradley Johnson brought the past and present together when he declared at the 1896 opening of the Confederate Museum in Richmond, that “the great crime of the century was the emancipation of the negroes.” To Johnson and other slavery apologists, the “peculiar institution” had been a beneficial school of civilization for black people, cruelly aborted by fanatical abolitionists. “As it is,” Johnson continued, “against his [the black man’s] will, and without his assistance, he has been turned loose in America to do the best he can in the contest with the strongest race that ever lived.” Johnson anticipated a dismal future of helpless black people ground down by industrial labor markets and permanently exploited by stronger white people. Why did he think so?

To conservatives, emancipation revealed the incapacity of black people to live in freedom. For instance, Richmonder Sallie May Dooley, wife of Confederate veteran and railroad magnate James H. Dooley, adopted a dialect narrative similar to that employed by popular novelist Thomas Nelson Page to describe worn out freedpeople. In her own 1906 novel Dem Good Ole Times, Dooley spoke through a fictional ex-slave, Old Ben, who lamented freedom. “We had plenty to eat, a plenty to war, un mighty little wuck to do, case day was so many to do it,” Old Ben said. “Whar you ever hear in dem times uv a crazy n—-r? Now de country is full on um; pears to me like dey all crazy.” Crazy, according to Dooley, because freedpeople could not handle the fruits of equality.

Virginia conservatives escalated their description of black political incompetence during the fight against the Readjusters in the 1880s. The Readjusters, a biracial coalition that advocated public schools, prison reform, and adjustment of state debt had dislodged conservative Democrats from power in the state during the late 1870s and early 1880s.

An 1883 shooting of four black men and one white bystander in Danville by local white men—that Democrats called a riot and Readjusters called a massacre—triggered a new Democratic Party campaign. They ousted Readjuster officeholders across the state through voting fraud and physical violence and an unabashed appeal to white unity and white supremacy. Archer Anderson, the Richmond industrialist who delivered the oration at the Robert E. Lee Monument in 1890, co-authored a response on behalf of the State Democratic Committee with Charles T. O’Ferrall, the Virginia Governor who in 1896 introduced Bradley Johnson at the Confederate Museum.  The lengthy article absolved white men and Democrats of the responsibility for the Danville violence and placed the blame firmly on what they called “the corrupting tyranny” of black politics.

The Democrats charged that black people in Danville, “under negro government, with negro policemen…had become rude and insulting to the whites.” The charge of rudeness referred to perceived failures of black people to show deference to white people: politically, by daring to exercise their voting rights, and socially by failing to give way in public spaces. The latter proved the instigating offence that led to the fatal shootings in Danville.

Anderson and O’Ferrall imagined (inaccurately) the scene in Danville: “what seems certain is that if the ten or fifteen brave white men, standing there and facing that angry crowd enormously outnumbering them had flinched for an instant or retreated…they themselves would have been butchered.”

Southern white people had long suffered fevered dreams about “servile insurrection” before the Civil War, thought they saw it in the march of United States Colored Troops during the war, and in the biracial political world after Reconstruction. Through the dual filters of prejudice and fear, they still imagined that only white fortitude and military prowess stood between them and barbarian chaos.

Anderson and O’Ferrall defined a problem for conservative Democrats—a problem of black people incapable of self control and white people pushed beyond patience. General Johnson hinted at the solution in his 1896 speech when he said, “nothing was ever devised so cruel as forcing on these children, the power and responsibility of the ballot.” The path forward was painfully clear to conservative leaders as the party regained their control of the state in the late 1880s: reduce black people to complete dependence by driving them from politics.

In 1894 Democrats in the General Assembly passed the Walton Act, designed to stymie illiterate voters—most of them black men—with confusing ballots. They looked to the United States Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that upheld “separate but equal” segregation laws, and its 1898 affirmation of Mississippi’s plan of disfranchisement using poll taxes and literacy tests.

In 1901, the General Assembly called for a new state constitution to explicitly restrict black voting in favor of a small number of white voters, and forestall populist turmoil by placing political power in the hands of white elites. Delegate Carter Glass noted with confidence that the proposed Constitution “will inevitably cut from the existing electorate four-fifths of the negro voters.”

The 1902 Constitution fulfilled Glass’ expectations. Within four years, county registrars had dropped the number of eligible black voters from 147,000 to just over 10,000. Black officeholders, from the General Assembly to city councils—never a great number—plummeted to none. The absence of black voters and officeholders enabled the creation of an explicitly segregationist state. James Dooley, Sallie May Dooley’s husband, toasted the new constitution as a safeguard against “cupidity, ignorance and barbarism.”

The turn of the 20th Century marked what historian Rayford Logan called “the nadir of race relations” in America, when local, state, and eventually, Federal agencies ratified Jim Crow legislation, when lynching rates soared the highest, and when gross black stereotypes settled most deeply into popular culture. Thomas Nelson Page’s plantation romances, after all, were not limited to the former Confederacy, but were a national phenomenon.

In Richmond, during this same period, the men and women who built the commemorative landscape honored their heroes, vindicated their cause, and celebrated the virtues of the men represented by the statues. As these same men and women celebrated the “attributes of power, majesty, and goodness” of monuments’ subjects, and while they condemned the lack “of industry, of self-restraint, of self-denial, of moral self-government” of black people from speakers’ podiums, they were also making manifest their politics of memory by building a segregationist state in Virginia.

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