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Tear the Confederate Memorials Down. Keep the Graffiti.

As protesters tear down a statue of Jefferson Davis in Richmond, the city’s Monument Avenue is facing a long-delayed reckoning with its Confederate memorials.  
The graffiti-tagged pedestal of the Jefferson Davis monument in Richmond, Virginia.
The graffiti-tagged pedestal of the Jefferson Davis monument in Richmond, Virginia.Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Virginia had a plan for dealing with its Confederate monuments. Back in 2017, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney formed an ad hoc advisory group to explore what to do with the city’s famed Monument Avenue, a picturesque historic boulevard lined with statues depicting Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Those monuments, sited in the former heart of the Confederacy, also serve as a bulwark of the revisionist Lost Cause effort to paint the Southern side of the Civil War as heroic and tragic.

The Monument Avenue Commission led the mayor to appoint a permanent nine-member History and Culture Commission in 2019 to carry out the suggestions laid out in the commission’s report — namely to remove some statues, provide historical context for the rest, and build other memorials to reflect the living history of Richmond.

But when Black Lives Matter protests spread nationwide, the question of what to do with these polarizing civic artifacts became more urgent. On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Robert E. Lee Memorial, a 12-ton state monument that occupies pride of place on Monument Avenue. Then a Richmond judge issued an injunction barring the commonwealth from moving forward, on the grounds that removing it would result in “a likelihood of irreparable harm to the statue.” On July 1, however, a state law will take effect allowing city leaders to begin the process of removing the city’s generous stock of Confederate memorials by holding a public hearing and publishing notice in a local newspaper.