Richmond's Heroes, Old and New

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

October 23, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Monument Avenue is to Richmond what the Mall is to Washington, Red Square to Moscow -- a place where heroes of yesterday are still honored, even if some are politically outdated.

My Richmond friends will not appreciate my comparing Red Square, with its mausoleum of the father of Bolshevism, to Monument Avenue, with its statues of heroes of the late NTC Confederacy. However:

Thirty years ago next month, I watched Soviet workmen after midnight as they lifted the body of the discredited Josef Stalin out of the tomb he shared with Vladimir Lenin. They mounted a temporary canvas banner with the single word ''Lenin'' across the facade where both men's names had been since soon after Stalin's death. Now even Lenin's statues have been toppling, and there is argument over whether he, too, should be spirited out of his tomb and buried less conspicuously alongside the Kremlin wall.

Today we join the debate over how things have changed in both Moscow and Richmond. Some other time, we will provoke debate by considering whatever parallels exist between the Bolshevik Revolution and the War Between the States.

That's what Richmond called the Civil War a hundred years ago when Robert E. Lee became the first Confederate figure memorialized on Monument Avenue. In later years, Jefferson Davis, Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were added, and much later, Matthew Fontaine Maury, pillar of the Confederate navy.

Thirty-five years ago, I lived just off Monument Avenue. Around the corner was an imposing building called Battle Abbey, the Confederate museum where portraits of the great were displayed with flags and swords captured from the Yankees.

The political mood in Richmond then was very much what it had been when Monument Avenue was conceived, and not totally different from the way people felt in the spring of 1861. In the mid-1950s, the state government and local newspapers were hysterically promoting interposition -- a theory that states could assert their sovereignty to block school desegregation -- as if the great war had never been fought.

Now the fanciful idea of interposition is long buried. Virginia and the nation have their first elected black governor, a Richmonder named Doug Wilder. Richmond has a black mayor. Five of the city's nine councilmen are black.

Those political changes, the desegregation of schools and public accommodations were the result of another long war. It had its heroes, too. And now there is rising sentiment to honor them as the idols of the Confederacy are honored along the ceremonial avenue.

No one is prominently demanding that Lee, Davis, Stuart and Jackson be demolished and replaced. But people are urging that figures like Oliver Hill and Samuel Tucker, civil-rights lawyers who successfully fought segregation, be honored along with the heroes of the lost cause of yesteryear. In due time, they say, Governor Wilder also should be immortalized in bronze.

One city councilman wants these black dignitaries to take their place on Monument Avenue, in line with Lee and friends. The mayor proposed that they stand elsewhere in the city. The solution, for the moment, is a unanimously endorsed Civil Rights Memorial Committee to study which modern heroes should be memorialized where.

So far, the public debate has not turned ugly. The councilman who wants the new figures on Monument Avenue says the statues already there ''stand in substantial measure for a society which believed in subjugation of the black race.'' Civil War fans insist those privately financed memorials stand not for race, but for history -- which is, after all, Richmond's chief tourist attraction.

Both are right. That is more than can be said for both sides in some of the other modern disputes over symbols of the 1860s, over courthouse statues of Confederate soldiers, over flying the Confederate flag in public places and wearing it on T-shirts in public schools.

For a century while they were politically subordinate, black Richmonders passed by and respected the Confederate memorials along Monument Avenue. Now that blacks are a political majority, they still respect those symbols. If whites are just as accommodating, the heroes of the civil-rights movement will be equally honored, and the capital of the Confederacy will have a future as proud as its past.

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