RICHMOND, — When George Braxton hears people speak of Southern pride and ancestry, he recalls that the family tree for him begins on a Southern plantation with the name of a white man who bought and owned his family.
“I struggle to understand how someone would want to tie their culture and heritage with human trafficking and systematic rape, and all the things associated with slavery which was the cornerstone of the Confederate economy,” says Braxton.
Braxton and his wife, Kelly Harris-Braxton, are proud lifelong Richmonders. Kelly is the executive director of Virginia First Cities, an advocacy group, and Braxton is chief diversity officer in an agency within the Defense Department.
They want the Confederates statues on Monument Avenue to come down.
“It’s disgraceful,” says Braxton. “It’s an outward, vicious, open and notorious sign of white supremacy.”
Their son Miles attended Thomas Jefferson High School, a few blocks from the monuments to Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and others. The Braxtons say kids shouldn’t have to grow up with icons that commemorate slavery, white supremacy and treason a stone’s throw away.
Braxton knows what that feels like. For him, it began in high school football when the Lee Davis Confederates and Douglas Freeman Rebels ran onto the field waving the Confederate battle flag. Now Braxton sees the battle flag every morning on his way to work off Interstate 95. He says the upside of it being dark when he’s driving home is that he can’t see it.
“To me, as a Richmonder, as an African-American, they’re a slap in the face,” he says about the statues. “It’s a way of saying that no matter what you do financially, professionally, in your life socially, civically, you may be eye to eye with me, but we have something that’s higher than you. This is something that stands above the city and looks down.”
Harris-Braxton sees the statues as gathering places for separatists, white supremacists and Nazis.
“They are building a movement around the statues,” she says. “These statues are creating a new life of their own. In the history of when they were placed during Jim Crow, it was an effort to say, ‘Watch out, we’re watching you, we’re better than you, you stay in your place.'
Bigots rally around Lee
“The South will rise again! – “White lives matter!” – “You will not replace us!” – “Jews will not replace us!”
These were the chants from white nationalists and white supremacists marching in a torchlight procession at University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017. The following day the Unite the Right Rally would turn deadly when a car plowed into counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19 others. By the time the marches were over, 33 people had been injured and three lives lost.
The rally was sparked by the city's decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Lee and the controversy surrounding the movement to remove tributes to the Confederacy elsewhere.
That movement picked up urgency after a white supremacist, Dylann Roof, murdered nine people during a prayer service in an African-American church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015. Roof had posed for a photograph waving the Confederate battle flag.
Harris-Braxton sees such pro-Confederacy displays as a backlash to the fact that an African American held the presidency for eight years. Barack Obama’s historic tenure inevitably unearthed deeply embedded racism and emboldened far-right groups to surface throughout the country, she says.
The events in Charleston and Charlottesville renewed national debate about the place of tributes to the long-gone Confederacy. In many cities in the South, Confederate monuments, flags, plaques and memorials are being removed. Streets, parks, schools and cemeteries named after Confederate figures are being changed. Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, is ground zero. What it does with its statues could set the tone for everyone else.
A conversation long overdue
Shemicia Bowen, who organizes Ladies Who Lead Richmond Black Restaurant Week, believes the only good thing that came out of the violence in Charlottesville was that it sparked a national and global conversation long overdue.
“Charlottesville was a tipping point,” says Bowen. “Images from across the country came down overnight. Done deal.”
Instead of symbols that racists use to promote their agenda, Bowen would like to focus on the positive images that reflect Richmond — a place she says is far bigger than the Confederate statues on two blocks of Monument Avenue.
“Richmond is hesitant,” says Bowen. “It wants to hold onto its past while reaching for its future, and we’re caught somewhere in between in how to preserve that and really on how to move forward.”
Before the violence in Charlottesville, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney had formed the Monument Avenue Commission to discuss adding context to the statues. After the Unite the Right rally, he shifted his position and announced the city should take them down.
“As they currently stand, the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue are a default endorsement of a shameful period in our national and city history that do not reflect the values of inclusiveness, equality and diversity we celebrate in today’s Richmond,” Stoney said.
The commission organized public meetings on whether to take the statues down. According to the mayor's office, 25% of 1,300 people said the city should do so. After one final public meeting in the spring, the commission will issue a recommendation to the mayor. It is up to the state to determine the fate of the monuments, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has said he would do everything in his power at the state level to remove them.
“Our ongoing conversation about these monuments is important. But what is more important to our future is dismantling the present-day vestiges of Jim Crow that these monuments were erected to preserve,” Stoney says. “We do that by building higher-quality schools and affordable housing, fighting poverty and providing equal opportunities for all Richmonders to succeed. We do that by valuing the living who represent our bright future, not the bronze and granite symbols of a dark past.”
‘The disease of Monument Avenue’
“The problem of Monument Avenue is not simply what it means—prime real estate that pays public homage to an array of Confederate leaders—but also how it means,” says Maureen Elgersman Lee, chair of the department of political science and history at Hampton University and former director of Richmond’s Black History Museum.
“The statues are enormous and elevated, requiring viewers to look up to them, both physically and symbolically. Robert E. Lee is constructed as a gallant, noble rider and Jefferson Davis is cast as a Greco-Roman beacon of truth and virtue. These statues stand impervious to the elements, impervious to the emotions of their multiple, competing audiences and impervious to the Lost Cause that they represent.”
Elgersman Lee says the statues seem to rewrite the end of the Civil War, framing it “not as an historical moment of surrender and defeat, but as one of victory and triumph.
"This is the disease of Monument Avenue, especially for blacks.”
But Elgersman Lee sees cause for optimism in Richmond. The controversy over the Confederate monuments might be, she says, the kind of “seismic shift” that can happen when a society discards outdated ways of thinking.
“Are we in the midst of that seismic shift? Only hindsight will tell us.”
George Braxton also feels hopeful. Son Miles, now a student at UVA, wrote a song in response to what happened in Charlottesville.
“To see these young people in Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesting, to me, it’s heartening. I’m excited to see what real changes they’re going to make moving forward."