The Motionless Ghosts That Haunt the South

A Richmond native recalls the veneration of the Confederacy that marked his youth—and says it’s time to take the statues down.

Library of Congress

I woke today to a TV image of crews in New Orleans removing the city’s massive statue of Jefferson Davis. I felt breathless, feeling a mixture of elation, disorientation, and bitter envy. Score one more for the Big Easy.

Why do I feel that way? Walk with me through the neighborhood I grew up in—as it was then, and as it is now.

It’s a tree-shaded urban neighborhood of Victorian brick duplexes and row houses in Richmond, Virginia. It is called the Fan, because the streets trace delicate triangular patterns as they run from the east—the edge of historic downtown—to the west—the museum district and the fashionable close-in suburbs of the West End.

It was built up along streetcar tracks during the half-century after the Civil War. The streetcars are gone, but the neighborhood shows traces of some very careful political city planning.

Walk two blocks north from my childhood home, and you will see the famous equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee astride his beloved horse Traveler. The Lee statue—14 feet tall—was put in place in 1890 in a public ceremony attended by more than 10,000 people.

Walk west now, along Monument Avenue, one of the most beautiful urban boulevards in America, if not the world. Less than a mile west of the Lee Monument is the monument to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Lee’s most important lieutenant. Jackson’s statue is 17 feet tall. Unlike Lee, Jackson—put in place in 1919—faces north, because he died while fighting the hated Yankee foe.

Five minutes’ walk west is the pharaonic cenotaph to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. (Davis, who was from Mississippi, is actually buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, only a few feet from two presidents of an actual country, James Monroe and John Tyler.) Davis’s street monument, 67 feet tall, was unveiled in 1907. As a child I saw a picture of my grandmother, Lily Epps, and her sister, my Aunt Clara, at the ceremony—two tiny Southern white ladies in dainty gloves and great big hats.

A few blocks further west is the monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury, a renegade U.S. Navy officer whose  “electric torpedo” killed hundreds of his former comrades during the war. (After the war, Maury fled to Mexico, where he convinced “Emperor” Maximilian, the short-lived leader of a never-recognized by the United States faction in the second Franco-Mexican War, to reinstate slavery and appoint him “Imperial Commissioner of Immigration,” creating a Mexican colony of former Confederates—who brought along their “slaves.”)

We’re doubling back down Monument Avenue now, past Davis, Jackson, and Lee, to Stuart Circle, where traffic flows around a dashing statue of General James Ewell Brown (“Jeb”) Stuart, Lee’s cavalry commander. Stuart’s horse faces north as well; he was mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern.

Reader, do you weary of this motionless parade of ghosts? Imagine growing up around its literal shadow. I once visited Gur Amir, the mausoleum and necropolis built to house the bones of Amir Timur, or Tamerlane, near Samarkand, Uzbekistan. It was the most exotic trip I have ever taken; but when I walked into that stark city of tombs, I felt right at home.

It was not just statuary that kept the Civil War before our eyes every day in those days of segregation. At the all-white school I attended, our school colors were drawn from Confederate uniforms—“Artillery Red” and “Infantry Grey.” Each student was assigned to one of two teams—the “Lees” or the “Jacksons.” (Not until the Obama years did the school, amid great uproar, drop these team names.) At school assemblies, students competed by reading or reciting literary works. A classmate read aloud James Thurber’s famous parody, If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox, which depicts Grant drunkenly surrendering to Lee. The middle-school principal stopped his reading, rebuked him for disrespect to Lee, and dismissed school for the day.

The reverence persists. When Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983, the state of Virginia combined it with an established holiday on Lee’s birthday as (I am not making this up) “Lee-Jackson-King Day.” (That appalling hybrid was abandoned in 2000, but Lee’s birthday is still celebrated on the Friday before King day.)

This was—and to a remarkable extent still is—a society imbued with myth and propaganda. We were taught to believe that these marble men—who staked their lives and fortunes to fight for chattel slavery—were the equals of the nation’s founders, and far superior to any Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant.

There simply is no way to hold that belief and at the same time believe that black Americans are equal before the law or even before God. That’s not a coincidence. Defenders of Confederate iconography argue that the statues represent simple historical memory—reminders that the South was the cockpit of America’s most cataclysmic war. But they are actually post-bellum propaganda. Segregation did not become Southern dogma well after the compromise of 1876. It was not firmly locked in place until Woodrow Wilson’s ascent to the White House in 1912. In other words, segregation was constructed in precisely the period in which the monuments were put in place.  They did not symbolize past battles, but present and future white supremacy.

Those monuments, that reverence for the Lost Cause and its leaders, do lasting damage to all who live in their shadows. It’s no coincidence that Richmond was the ideological powerhouse of “massive resistance”—defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education—during the 1950s. That constitutional monstrosity flowed directly from neo-Confederate ideology.

Formally segregation died in July 1964—but it lived on in the minds of those taught to weep for the red and gray, and it lives on in the hearts of their children and grandchildren. It poisoned the heart of Dylann Roof, who killed nine African American worshipers at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston; I suspect it lives on in the heart of the man who now sits in the cabinet seat once held by Robert F. Kennedy.

My native city, state, and region is still troubled by the echoes of shots fired in April 1861. It is poorer, more violent, less welcoming, less democratic, less healthy, less educated, and less livable because some of its people cling to the myth that men can be flawless demigods while taking up arms to maintain their human property.

The statues should come down, all of them, the way the Stalin statues came down in Eastern Europe, the Saddam statues in Iraq.

New Orleans has begun the work. Charlottesville, Virginia, is taking down its Lee statue. In Richmond, all those monuments are still there. During the recent mayoral campaign, Levar Stoney, the successful candidate, said, “I'm not going to shed any tears if the Jefferson Davis statue comes down or if the name of Jefferson Davis Highway is changed.”  But the veteran local columnist Mark Holmberg last month explained that the marble men are safe: “Our monuments are a rock-solid part of Richmond's $1.7 billion dollar tourism industry.”

In 1996, the city unveiled a new statue on Monument Avenue: Arthur Ashe, a native son of Richmond who became a tennis champion and crusader for equal rights.  That statue, believe it or not, sparked bitter dissent from some white Richmonders.

Like my grandmother and my aunt at the Davis ceremony, my mother attended the Ashe unveiling. No gloves or hat, but a white Southern lady who attracted a reporter’s curiosity.

She told the reporter, “The Civil War’s been over a long time.”