While the reckoning over the legacy of Confederate monuments occurred all over the country, nowhere are those statues as tied to the urban design of the city as they are in Richmond, Virginia. Monument Avenue, the broad, grassy, tree-lined mall, built in the tradition of the City Beautiful Movement, was also built to glorify systemic racism, oppression, and a pseudo-historical narrative of the past. Levar Stoney, the city’s 39-year old chief executive, was faced with a unique dilemma: a young, African American mayor presiding over a city with the largest collection of Confederate monuments. On July 1, Mayor Stoney ordered the immediate removal of all Confederate statues on city property in Richmond, the onetime capital of the Confederacy. The mayor invoked emergency powers, citing ongoing civil unrest and concerns that protesters would get hurt if they tried to pull down the large statues themselves. Recently I spoke to Mayor Stoney about the decision to remove the statues, how they’ve become places for healing and reconciliation, and the longer-term engagement process over Monument Avenue’s eventual future.
TS: Trinity Simons
MS: Mayor Stoney
Even before you ordered the monuments to be taken off their pedestals, Monument Avenue was the site of protests, but it was also already becoming the site of reconciliation and remediation. It was the site of art, dance, Black joy. Talk about that shift and what you think it means for the city.
I would say that the spaces around the pedestals on Monument Avenue have not only become places of remediation, but places of reclamation as well. For a long time, many felt as though that stretch of road was not open or available to them as Black and Brown people. What you see now are folks of all different walks of life, all different backgrounds, visiting Monument Avenue and sharing in that black joy that you spoke about. It’s become a place of unity instead of a place of division. People are coming together: there’s classical music being played, you’re seeing projections of faces like George Floyd and John Lewis. Kids are playing basketball, the community is coming together. When I look at those pedestals today, and I see some of them have graffiti on them—some of those words are unnecessary—but it’s an exhibition of the pain and an outcry that we’ve been hearing during this moment of racial strife. Many onlookers have stated to me that it reminds them of when the Berlin Wall fell. You’re my age—I’m 39—so images of the Berlin Wall for me are the graffitied wall fallen. We didn’t know what the words said at the time, but it meant something to the German people. And when we lifted those monuments off their pedestals, off of their platforms, it certainly felt like that moment when the Berlin Wall fell.
What we have to do now as elected leaders, though, is tear down the system that those monuments symbolized. That’s the systemic racism in our government, in our criminal justice system, in healthcare, in housing, you name it. And that’s going to be a lot of work, and it’s not going to happen overnight, like the removal of the monuments didn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take a little time. But it’s going to take that same sort of spirit of the folks who are gathering at Monument Avenue to get the work done within government.
I love the comparison to the Berlin Wall, especially as the very infrastructure of oppression—in this case the towering pedestals—are now being subverted and used for expressions of both protest and joy. And I greatly appreciate this “pause” and the lack of a race to determine Monument Avenue’s fate. That said, what is the current thinking on a longer-term approach to Monument Avenue’s future?
I mean, moving forward, I hope it goes without saying that we’re going to have a robust public-engagement process, not only of those who live in the neighborhood, but also of those who have long been marginalized about what happens along a grand boulevard like Monument Avenue. It’s my hope that we get to a place that provides for inclusive introspection about what Richmond is today in 2020 and beyond, not what Richmond was in the early 1900s. But we aren’t racing into that. We still have a lot of decisions to make on where the removed monuments will go. Over the next 20 or so days we’re going to have that discussion: where these bronze statues end up. Then we’re going to have to have the discussion about what’s going to happen to these pedestals. Do they stay? Right now they’re a gathering point for people with differing views. They could easily become a gathering point for division and bigotry. People may still come back and say, “Hey, this is where Jeb Stuart stood. This is where Jefferson Davis stood.” And that’s not something I’m interested in, moving forward into the 2020s. So we’re going to have to have a long robust conversation about what the future looks like. Will it include the pedestals, or will it be something that’s a lot more inclusive? But these are conversations that I’m looking forward to the city having, and unlike the conversations we had around the removal or contextualization of the monuments, which were at times divisive, I think these conversations will avail us to a moment of unity, which is what we need right now to continue the healing process.
When you attended the Mayors’ Institute on City Design (MICD) in 2017, the case study you brought was a site in Shockoe Bottom, known as the “Devil’s Half Acre,” which was the center of Richmond’s slave trade and Lumpkin’s Slave Jail. You’ve done a significant amount of work since that meeting, and just a few weeks ago, announced a $25–$50 million investment to memorialize and commemorate what you called Richmond’s “complete history.” Tell us more about that vision for that investment.
The Shockoe area served as the second busiest domestic slave port in the United States of America, and right in the center of that is Lumpkin’s Jail, the “Devil’s Half Acre,” which served as a slave jail in the area for decades. Partly because of this fraught and charged history, the site mostly languished as parking lots for decades. When I became mayor, I was selected to attend MICD, and I recall going there and thinking: I’ve got a project that I’m going to present to my fellow mayors and designers that is racially charged, politically charged, and no one has ever been able to do anything in this area. It’s just been parking lots and forgotten. And I remember vividly, after I gave my presentation at the Institute, the designers said, “no, Mr. Mayor! This is a true asset! This is authenticity. A lot of cities just don’t have this authentic story to tell. And so if I were you, I would lean into this.” So I took that motivation from the MICD back to my city. We were also selected as part of the Daniel Rose Land Use Fellowship, and so we took a further deep dive into what we should do in the Shockoe Bottom footprint. They came here; they listened to a number of residents that had been involved for a number of years. And what we found out was there was more agreement on what we should do with Shockoe Bottom than disagreement. There was only about 5%–10% of disagreement on a couple parcels of land. So over the last five years or so, we’ve been able to bring people to the table, stakeholders who had never been to the table over the last 20–30 years, and we’ve been able to come to a unified vision on what this area should be moving forward. And that’s a memorial campus that will feature a memorial park and a museum to the enslaved. I can’t say that we were in this position a decade ago or even five years ago. And that’s because people are willing to come to the table, be vulnerable, speak truth to power, and compromise.
Removing symbols of hate and investing in Richmond’s complete history are first steps towards addressing racial equity in the city. But to truly move forward as a city, to increase equity and address decades of systemic racism, we have to empower our Black and Brown residents. That is the work I am dedicated to as the mayor of Richmond.
Featured image via the Associated Press.