Stoney is right. Context does matter. And the deliberate lack of context is one of the worst features of Southern civic imagery.
You want context?
Monument Avenue, one of the most beautiful divided urban boulevards in the world, runs eastward from Three Chopt Road to Lombardy Street, where it turns into two-lane Franklin Street, which ends two miles father east at Capitol Square.
So let’s start by looking for real history on this very street. Thomas Jefferson designed the Capitol Building; Governor Patrick Henry laid the cornerstone in 1785. Aaron Burr was tried for treason here, and the Confederate “Congress” met here during the Civil War.
At the Capitol, too, United States Colored Troops, on April 3, 1865, raised the American flag for the first time after the fall of Richmond. Here a biracial constitutional convention in 1867 wrote the first truly democratic constitution Virginia ever had. Here Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected governor of any American state, was sworn into office in 1990.
In Capitol Square stands the 1858 equestrian statue of George Washington. At the base of that statue, on April 5, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech to an audience of freed slaves. Eyewitnesses relate that the wind blew Confederate $1,000 bonds unheeded around listeners’ feet.
Three blocks west on Franklin St. is the site of the old Thalhimer’s Department Store. Here, on February 22, 1960, 34 black students from Virginia Union University were arrested for seeking service in the store’s two all-white dining areas, setting off a six-month boycott and and an eventual key movement victory.
We’re only three blocks into our trip, and we have found more real history on this one street than is contained in the entire procession of dead “heroes” on Monument Ave.
Within a mile of the Capitol, there’s St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry made his famous “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech; there’s the Tredegar Iron Works by the James River, where slave laborers were forced to forge weapons used to fight for slavery. (It has been converted into the American Civil War Museum.) Not far away is a historical marker to commemorate John Mitchell, the crusading black editor of The Richmond Planet, and a national historical site honoring Maggie L. Walker, the first African American woman to be president of an American bank. A mile and a half east, there’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery, where Chief Justice John Marshall’s grave lies; not far away—open to tourists—is the townhome he built and lived in, now lovingly restored. Down the street from that is Jefferson Davis’s official residence, now also part of the Civil War museum. In the other direction is Hollywood Cemetery, where you can see the actual graves of Presidents John Tyler and James Monroe, as well as of General George Pickett, of writers James Branch Cabell and Ellen Glasgow, and even of Jefferson Davis. Evergreen Cemetery, a few miles away, teems with graves of famous black Richmonders.