They were built to commandeer history, to project an immutable myth, to erase reality, to make the horrible majestic.
Confederate monuments topple in Richmond, Virginia
Text and images by Brian Palmer
August 17, 2020
I have photographed dozens of Confederate monuments since moving to Richmond, Virginia, seven years ago, tens of thousands of frames. I have shot the massive statues on Monument Avenue and many others around this city. On travels across the commonwealth and through states of the former Confederacy – from Mississippi and Louisiana to Kentucky and Tennessee – I have photographed the ubiquitous monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals on courthouse lawns and in town squares, at carefully preserved plantations with their big houses and in segregated Confederate cemeteries.
It felt transgressive at first – a Black man, the descendant of enslaved people, shooting monuments to White supremacy and treason. And then, it began to feel futile. The injustice and brutality of the system that spawned these sites didn’t show up in my journalistic photos of heroic militiamen and generals, stately homes and muscular buildings. Which was precisely the point of these monuments: They were built to commandeer history, to project an immutable myth, to erase reality, to make the horrible majestic.
The effort to construct a myth of the Confederacy began almost as soon as the Confederacy itself was defeated. Civic groups, particularly the ladies memorial associations formed after the war that became the United Daughters of the Confederacy, working with public funds and land from White city councils and state legislatures, led a monument-building drive across the South and beyond. Through monuments, museums and textbooks, the United Daughters of the Confederacy shaped the memory of the Confederacy as a “Lost Cause,” a heroic defense of states’ rights and a way of life in which slavery was a force that had civilized, Christianized and cared for the benighted Negro. Their efforts stamped White supremacy on the printed page and the American landscape, tainting our public education and our collective imagination. Their efforts have been supported by millions of taxpayer dollars.
I would walk away after shooting their monuments, and the monuments would remain: potent, inviolable, sacrosanct.
Often, I visited these sites as side trips while on pilgrimages to historic African American cemeteries. My wife, Erin, and I had been exploring Black cemeteries since discovering that my great-grandparents, both of whom were born enslaved, had been buried in a forlorn, poorly preserved cemetery in Magruder, just north of Williamsburg, Virginia, on land that got claimed as a military base during World War II.
These cemeteries are indispensable outdoor archives of the African American experience. White recordkeepers considered Black folk nameless property during slavery – and, thereafter, as a labor force to be controlled. It is at cemeteries, in inscriptions found on headstones, that one finds how Black people remembered one another.
It was another cemetery on that base, Camp Peary, that started us thinking about the connection between these African American sites of memory – cemeteries, slave cabins and settlements of those who escaped slavery – and the places dedicated to memorializing the Confederacy. This second cemetery belonged to a church that served the town’s White minority. Both church and burial ground were well tended by U.S. military personnel, including one plot surrounded by a white picket fence, the grave for the “Unknown Confederate Soldier.” This, we realized, was the afterlife of Jim Crow: the myth of the Confederacy protected and burnished; the reality of Black life and death abandoned and erased.
Opposition to Confederate monuments is as old as the monuments themselves. “Monuments to the ‘lost cause’ will prove monuments of folly … in the memories of a wicked rebellion which they must necessarily perpetuate,” Frederick Douglass wrote in 1870. “It is a needless record of stupidity and wrong.”
When, during Reconstruction, John Mitchell Jr., publisher of the Black newspaper the Richmond Planet, served on Richmond’s City Council, he voted against a measure to spend city money on the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee statue in 1890. The funding was approved, and Mitchell wrote a fiery editorial, arguing that the statue “will ultimately result in the handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”
Yet the monuments stood. It wasn’t until a January 2018 trip to Memphis, Tennessee, that we finally witnessed their impermanence: pedestals without their imposing statues. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate officer and first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was gone. So was Jefferson Davis, president of the slavery-powered Confederacy.
We had seen small intrusions into Confederate spaces before – protests, the occasional graffiti tag. But this was more – a bold and permanent intervention, a physical removal of racist idols. It was an interruption in more than a century of toxic ideology imposed on the landscape of a very Black city.
Then sparks that flew from Minneapolis after George Floyd’s killing landed in Richmond and ignited a deep reservoir of grief and rage. This city’s Confederate monuments and sites – its defining visual vocabulary – became targets for sustained attack, the intensity and extent of which this city had never seen. This wasn’t a lone “BLM” scrawled on Jefferson Davis’ base, it was a swarm of direct actions against every Confederate statue along Monument Avenue and across the city. The tags multiplied too fast for officials to clean.
Then, crews of midnight deconstructors toppled Davis and other Confederates from their perches, along with Christopher Columbus. No permits, court orders or resolutions. These Confederate spaces had been protected for generations, by custom, inertia and public funds. Until, suddenly, they weren’t.
The hardest-hit site was the national headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a long, squat fortress of a building in Richmond’s Museum District. “This is not just a building of steel, stone and marble. It is a temple of memory,” president-general Edna H. Fowler said at the dedication of the headquarters in November 1957.
In May 2020, its stone face was mercilessly tagged and its innards were torched. This was damage that couldn’t be power-washed away. Authorities were facing more than a few vandals. They had a movement on their hands. “We’re sticking together about this,” one Black protester told a White TV reporter covering the first night of unrest. “We tired of Black men getting killed, Black women getting killed. You feel that? Do you understand that?”
The morning after the fire, the building’s windows still coated with soot, White men armed with rifles and sidearms gathered around the entrance. One had parked a red pickup on the headquarters’ lawn, with vanity plates that read VGL NTE. They commanded me and other passersby to move back to the public sidewalk. This was “private property,” they said. Several of us called the police. A White officer conferred with the most belligerent man in the group and then advised the rest of us to leave.
That “private property” was state land before legislators donated it to the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1950s. Lawmakers kicked in another $10,000 in taxpayer money for expenses.
On June 4, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that the monument to Lee, the only state-owned statue on Monument Avenue, would be taken down. When that didn’t stop the battles in the street, Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, ordered the immediate removal of all remaining city-owned monuments July 1.
Even as police and demonstrators clashed by night, residents were busy by day converting the monument sites into peaceful gathering places, most notably the grassy circle around the Lee monument.
For weeks, that site has teemed with people – of all races, ages and sartorial displays. That sterile, exclusive White space dedicated to venerating a conquered slavery-defending general had been used mostly by Confederate reenactors and White tourists. Now a diverse array of couples and families posed for cellphone photos on the monument’s riotously colorful, graffitied base. Portable hoops hosted intergenerational pickup games. There have been dance performances, drum circles, cello ensembles, marching bands, speeches, teach-ins, rallies, vigils and barbecues. City residents have come to marvel at the rich layers of defacement – or refacement – and the expanding guerrilla garden that surrounds the professionally painted sign welcoming people to the site by its new, unofficial name: Marcus-David Peters Circle, after the young teacher shot to death in 2018 by Richmond police.
This democratic reclamation project is still precarious. Recently, police and city workers swept through and evicted protesters who had built an encampment just outside the circle. Just two nights ago, the sign renaming the space Marcus-David Peters Circle was stolen. Removal of the Lee statue is now tied up in court.
But for now, the space has been liberated from its awful, racist and exclusive past. On a sweltering August day, one regular rolled up on his bicycle in a baby-blue pork pie hat. Ignoring the handful of young people shooting selfies, he climbed the pedestal steps and started to pick up trash and toss it into a bin. Then he carefully adjusted the rocks holding a banner in place that reads, “We’re Not Leaving.”
This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.