The Life of Monument Avenue

 As a mirror in which Richmond views itself, and by which it has encouraged outsiders to view it, Monument Avenue has reflected a variety of meanings and evolving values in a changing city.

"U.D.C. Honors Memory of Jefferson Davis" (1933-06-03) by Richmond News LeaderAmerican Civil War Museum

Living Monuments

The monuments firmly entrenched Confederate memory and a Confederate history of the Civil War in a conservative culture that blended small government, white supremacy, elite rule, with a reverence for Virginia’s past. From the moment workers lifted Robert E. Lee’s statue atop its marble pedestal in 1890, Confederate veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.), and city officials reinforced the centrality of Confederate history in the public lives of Richmonders with regular birthday observations and assemblies at the monuments. The U.D.C. featured young women in its ceremonies, encouraging them to embody and extoll the values its members saw inscribed in the statues. Men looked to the martial qualities of Lee, Stuart, and Jackson—and used them to inspire soldiers of new wars.  An essential stop on any proper tour of modern Richmond, the Avenue became just one part of a citywide identity as a place that honored its history, especially its Confederate history. Those who did not care said little. Some could not, even if they had wanted.  

"Lee School Children Pay Tribute to General Lee" (1930-05-30) by Richmond News LeaderAmerican Civil War Museum

Detail of a wreath laying at the Lee Monument in 1930.

Robert E. Lee School in the West End opened for white children in 1919. In 1930 students decorated the Lee Monument on Memorial Day. The News Leader reported, “this is an annual event for them.”

"Exercises Held at Lee Monument" (1939-01-19) by Richmond News LeaderAmerican Civil War Museum

On Robert E. Lee’s 132nd birthday, Anita Louise Hackett joined the U.D.C’s Richmond Chapter Vice President C.R. Blankenship to lay a wreath. Ms. Hackett spent her career teaching in Richmond Public Schools.

"Confederate Women Honor Davis Again" (1935-06-03) by Richmond News LeaderAmerican Civil War Museum

The Richmond Chapter of the U.D.C. honored Jefferson Davis’ birthday, again, in 1935.

The U.D.C. created and monitored a memorial landscape and a very narrow public memory of the Confederacy in textbooks, statues, a public programs across the United States.

"Elliot Gray's Chapter Observes J.E.B. Stuart Birthday" (1937-02-06) by Richmond News LeaderAmerican Civil War Museum

The Elliott Grays Chapter of the U.D.C. from Manchester laid wreaths at J.E.B. Stuart’s monument then walked ten blocks to raise a flag at the West Grace Street home where Stuart died in 1864.

"Color Guards March Out of St. Paul's After Lee Service" (1941-01-20) by Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

On Robert E. Lee’s birthday in 1941, the governor, the mayor, and color guards from the Richmond Light Infantry Blues (pictured) attended services at St. Paul’s Church. The U.D.C. laid wreaths on Lee’s monument and students assembled at the Robert Fulton School in the East End to offer song recitals.

Journalist and Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman broadcast over the NBC radio network a speech entitled “Robert E. Lee as Counselor of National Defense.” Freeman used Lee to call for resolute military preparation as European countries entered the fight against fascists.

"Pay Tribute to Confederate President" (1942-06-04) by Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

World War II muted Jefferson Davis birthday observances. In 1942 state offices and banks closed, but “for most people in the city, it was just another Wednesday.”

The U.D.C. assembled at St. Paul’s Church for a service, and those who could not get away from home could listen to Mrs. Fitzhugh Lee Brauer deliver an address about Davis on radio station WMBG.

"Lee Naval Volunteers" (1942-08-02) by Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

Six hundred and fifty Virginians, dubbed the “Lee Volunteers,” assembled at the Lee Monument to enlist in the United States Navy in August, 1942.

With events like these, new generations learned to associate Lee, the Confederate general, to contemporary American patriotism.

Lee Volunteers Poster (1942) by Commonwealth of VirginiaAmerican Civil War Museum

The Lee Volunteers fulfilled the wishes of both Douglas S. Freeman and the original monument builders who appealed to military fortitude of Lee, Stuart, Davis, and Jackson. These living monuments marched off to war around the globe.

Richmond Magazine cover (1937-06) by Richmond MagazineAmerican Civil War Museum

Confederate Statues, Modern City

Richmond’s population and industry bustled and grew in the mid-20th century. White residents continued to move to commuter suburbs to the south and north while African Americans remained legally excluded from suburban frontiers by de facto segregation and redlining. Despite the material abundance of jet-age America, Richmond continued to cultivate its reputation as the Capital of the Confederacy for tourists traveling on Eisenhower’s interstate system. In the public life of Richmond, “Monument Avenue” became more than a collection of Confederate statues. The monuments, combined with the architecturally important residences that surrounded them and the leafy streetscape itself, became a shorthand for affluent Old Richmond. But even affluence had different meanings to different people.

A Tour of Historic Richmond (1937) by Hathi Trust Digital LibraryAmerican Civil War Museum

Automobiles brought paved roads and tourists. The Jefferson Hotel offered guides to historic Richmond for its well-heeled and mobile visitors.

Jefferson Davis Monument from “A Tour of Historic Richmond” (1937) by Hathi Trust Digital LibraryAmerican Civil War Museum

The "Tour of Historic Richmond" took visitors down Monument Avenue.

Advertisements (1920/1930) by American Civil War MuseumAmerican Civil War Museum

Real estate agents used Monument Avenue as a selling point for homes, apartments, and businesses.

One advertiser misspelled Stuart's last name, suggesting that knowledge of Confederate history lagged behind reverence for the Confederate past.

Federal Housing Authority area map (1940) by The Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond and Federal Housing AuthorityAmerican Civil War Museum

Yet by the 1930s, as the number of renters exceeded the number of homeowners, and as middle class people moved deeper into the West End, Monument Avenue lost some of its luster.

Area Description (detail) (1940) by Federal Housing AdministrationAmerican Civil War Museum

The Federal Housing Authority assessed Monument Avenue in 1940: “The peak has passed.”

Robert Leon Bacon Letter (1955) by Robert Leon BaconAmerican Civil War Museum

Robert Leon Bacon fled Virginia’s racism in 1955 and wrote back to the governor. Bacon said, “I cannot go on Monument Ave. and visit a white girl from fear of being ‘lynched’ or beaten up or arrested or electrocuted.”

Bacon did not necessarily refer to the Confederate statues, but certainly he knew that white people could use violence and threats to prevent interracial mingling and a black presence in white neighborhoods like Monument Avenue.

Robert Leon Bacon (1955) by Robert Leon BaconAmerican Civil War Museum

Bacon detailed his particular fear of going to Monument Avenue.

Richmond Tour (1965) by The Virginia Historical SocietyAmerican Civil War Museum

During the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, when Richmond built the modernist Centennial Dome, a Civil War visitor center intended to draw history-minded travelers from the burgeoning tourist axis of Washington, D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg, the Richmond Tour directed visitors from the state capitol, toward Chimborazo, and then back around to go up Boulevard with a grand finale cruise back down Monument Avenue.

Richmond Tour detail (1965) by The Virginia Historical SocietyAmerican Civil War Museum

Richmond Tour highlights along Monument Avenue in the 1960s.

"Planners Suggest Moving Stuart Statue to Corner of Intersection" (1965-11-17) by Richmond News LeaderAmerican Civil War Museum

By the mid-1960s, Monument Avenue had become a congested commuter corridor, with too much traffic and frequent collisions between cars and the iron gates that did not quite protect the statues.

The statues themselves became dingy with half a century’s worth of grime and corrosion.

Richmond City Planning Commission Study (1965) by Richmond City Planning CommissionAmerican Civil War Museum

In 1965 the Richmond City Planning Commission issued a study designed to make Monument Avenue more suitable for high-volume automobile tourism, and expand its capacity as a historical destination.

They had sidestepped Monument Avenue’s Confederate legacy and elevated the street as a center of landscape and urban design.

Page from Richmond City Planning Commission report (1965) by Richmond City Planning CommissionAmerican Civil War Museum

Planners discovered that the density of trees and infrequency of monuments added up to an unpleasant visual rhythm for motorists.

JEB Stuart monument relocation proposal (1965) by Richmond City Planning CommissionAmerican Civil War Museum

Planners proposed to move the J.E.B. Stuart statue to the corner of Monument Avenue and North Lombardy to clear the thoroughfare.

Proposed new statue with reflecting pool (1965) by Richmond City Planning CommissionAmerican Civil War Museum

They also proposed a new Confederate statue to improve the visual rhythm of Monument Avenue at 40 miles per hour.

"Monument Avenue Surface Problems" (1968-09-05) by Richmond DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

Though the Planning Commission’s grand vision failed to come to fruition, the city did begin modernizing Monument Avenue’s surface. The move provoked the street’s residents, led by Helen Marie Taylor, to organize the Monument Avenue Preservation Society. MAPS motivated residents to preserve the district’s historic character.

Sally Tompkins monument proposal (1966) by The Virginia Historical SocietyAmerican Civil War Museum

In 1966, at the urging of Roland Reynolds, marketing director of Richmond-based Eskimo Pie and member of the Reynolds aluminum family, Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali offered a concept for a statue of Confederate hospital administrator Sally Tompkins.

Bill Wynne, a Richmond advertising executive, sketched Dali’s idea that likened Tompkins to St. George, slaying the dragon of disease.

Though never a serious proposal, Dali’s concept anticipated a vibrant future.

Photo Illustration (2016) by middle Of broad studioAmerican Civil War Museum

Confederate, or not?

As the Richmond Planning Commission envisioned a revitalized Monument Avenue, the civil rights movement and the growth of Virginia Commonwealth University fundamentally transformed the public face of Richmond. City boosters promoted Richmond not just as a historic destination, but also as a place for food, the arts, and outdoor recreation. In the mid-1970s, Richmond became a majority African American city and in 1977 elected its first black mayor. Citizens of Richmond have spent the subsequent years in struggle over how the multi-cultural city presents its history, with Monument Avenue at the center of that fight.

Postcard (1990) by The American Civil War MuseumAmerican Civil War Museum

Well into the 1990s, Richmond’s tourism officials promoted Monument Avenue as a destination, and as one face of the city.

Massing of the Flags (1987) by United Daughters of the ConfederacyAmerican Civil War Museum

Throughout the late 20th Century, Monument Avenue continued to be a site of Confederate memory. Between 1965 and the early 1990s, the U.D.C. hosted an annual “Massing of the Flags” at the Jefferson Davis Memorial, and later, at its headquarters on Boulevard. The Sons of Confederate Veterans hosted similar ceremonies at Hollywood Cemetery to celebrate Jefferson Davis’ birthday.

“Court Square Garland Dancers” (1973) by The Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

The Monument Avenue Preservation Society, inspired by resident Zayde Dotts, sponsored the first Easter on Parade along Monument Avenue in 1973.

Easter parade dogs (2010) by Sports BackersAmerican Civil War Museum

The event has featured dancers, artists, costumes, music, and dogs dressed in Easter costumes.

Monument Avenue 10K Poster (2010) by Matt LivelyAmerican Civil War Museum

The Monument Avenue 10K race began in 2000. Sponsored originally by the Ukrops grocery store chain and sanctioned by USA Track and Field, up to 25,000 people have crossed the finish line per year, making it one of the most popular 10K races in the United States.

Architectural plan of Arthur Ashe site (1995) by Earth Design AssociatesAmerican Civil War Museum

In the early 1990s, the Richmond City Council proposed that a statue of Richmond native and tennis great Arthur Ashe be installed on Monument Avenue. Some opponents insisted that the street was an exclusively Confederate sanctuary.

Arthur Ashe memorial unveiling (1996-06-10) by The Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

The Arthur Ashe statue was unveiled in 1996.

Protest and counterprotest at Arthur Ashe statue unveiling (1996) by American Civil War MuseumAmerican Civil War Museum

Opponents brought their case to the statue unveiling on July 10, 1996, but where overwhelmed by the thousands who had gathered to celebrate the occasion.

Bicycle Race (2015) by The Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

In the 21st Century, many in Richmond objected to placing the monuments at the center of Richmond’s identity as a modern, inclusive, city.

Article (2015-09) by The Virginia DefenderAmerican Civil War Museum

The Union Cycliste Internationale bicycle races featured Monument Avenue while the editors of the Richmond Defender newspaper asked, “Will [Richmond] fearlessly face the truth of its origins in slavery and the slave trade? Or will it gloss over this past and continue to pay homage to the symbols of oppression?”

Jefferson Davis Monument with graffiti (2017) by David StreeverAmerican Civil War Museum

In the 2010s, the Jefferson Davis Monument was tagged with graffiti almost as regularly as it had been marked by birthday wreaths a century before.

Lee Monument (2016) by middle Of broad studioAmerican Civil War Museum

Virginia Commonwealth University students at the mOb studio offered whimsical and critical reconsiderations on the Lee Monument in 2016.

Photo illustration (2016) by middle Of broad studioAmerican Civil War Museum

Virginia Commonwealth University students at the mOb studio offered whimsical and critical reconsiderations on the Lee Monument in 2016.

Anti- alt-right march (2017-09-16) by David StreeverAmerican Civil War Museum

In 2017 opponents of the national alt-right movement, which rallied in support of Confederate monuments, marched from the new Maggie Walker memorial to the J.E.B. Stuart monument to protest white supremacy. The Coalition for Accountability, advocating for schools, immigration reform, and LGBTQ rights, marched from the Lee Monument to Shockoe Bottom, the site of the African Burial Ground and Devil’s Half Acre.

Both marches connected Monument Avenue to Richmond’s larger historical landscape, and both called for the removal of Confederate monuments.

Familes participate in an art walk (2012-04-03) by Richmond Times DispatchAmerican Civil War Museum

Family at art walk, 2012.

Jeb Stuart June 3 (2020-06-03) by Christopher GrahamAmerican Civil War Museum

The statues on Monument Avenue became the focal point of demonstrations against police brutality in 2020.

Protest at Jefferson Davis memorial (2020-06-03) by Chris GrahamAmerican Civil War Museum

Black Lives Matter protestors silently raise their fists at the Jefferson Davis Memorial on June 3, 2020.

Projection on Lee Monument (2020-06) by Joseph S.H. RogersAmerican Civil War Museum

In June and July, 2020, Black Lives Matter protestors projected portraits of Black figures from Harriet Tubman to George Floyd on the Lee Monument.

Removal of Stonewall Jackson monument (2020-07-01) by Chris GrahamAmerican Civil War Museum

On July 1, 2020, the city of Richmond began removing Confederate statues from Monument Avenue in order to preserve "public safety," starting with Stonewall Jackson. The city subsequently removed the monuments to Matthew Fontaine Maury and JEB Stuart. Their future is pending a larger community discussion.

Context on Monument Avenue (2020-07-01) by Chris GrahamAmerican Civil War Museum

From the U.D.C. to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Richmonders have projected their values onto the statues on Monument Avenue, and the street will continue to be used to define the city's identity.

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