Time to tell the invisible story'


Monuments: In Richmond, Va., and other Southern cities, statues of Confederate heroes are being joined by works honoring blacks. But the change is not being accomplished without friction.

April 27, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- History is written by the victors. But in this city and others across the South, losers did most of the writing -- leaving behind marble and bronze memorials celebrating the vanquished Confederate soldiers, generals and politicians of America's Civil War.

Now, 135 years after that conflict ended, the winners are beginning to write some history of their own, trying to remove vestiges of a racist and oppressive past.

In Richmond, where statues of Confederate generals stand on a tree-lined avenue, black leaders have fought successfully to rename two bridges -- which once bore the names of Confederate generals -- after civil rights leaders.

Last year, they persuaded city officials to remove a mural of a uniform-clad Robert E. Lee from a public display and replace it with a photo of Lee in civilian clothes. In 1996, they won their most publicized victory by erecting a monument to tennis champion and Richmond native Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue, alongside memorials to Confederate generals.

Black leaders have plans for a statue of a civil rights lawyer who helped desegregate Virginia's schools and for a monument, resembling the Vietnam Memorial, recalling the suffering of slaves.

After years of living in the shadows of the Confederate memorials, blacks say they have the confidence to start telling their history.

"It is time to tell the invisible story," says Charles Bethea, executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. "There's definitely an imbalance. There are more Confederate icons and namesakes." The way to rectify this imbalance, he says, is for blacks to start creating their own edifices.

That change has not come without conflict.

In recent months, someone torched the Lee mural and defaced his large statue on Monument Avenue with graffiti. Public hearings concerning the renaming of the bridges became heated. Some think the tension will worsen.

"Richmond is shaping up to be a battleground," says Brag Bowling, Richmond-area brigade commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "What they are doing is trying to deny that a certain history ever occurred. All over the South, a political correctness is taking hold, which doesn't study history but deals in symbols."

Confederate memorials far outnumber those commemorating blacks in a city that is now more than 55 percent black. But Richmond once served as the capital of the Confederacy, and it is that past that is recalled.

Along Monument Avenue, large, marble memorials commemorate Lee, two of his generals, a Confederate naval officer and Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy's president. Atop a hill overlooking the city stands a 100-foot-tall statue to the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy. Numerous streets and some schools are named after Lee, Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate heroes.

Blacks have few monuments to their past. In addition to the Ashe monument, statues commemorate a famous tap dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and a black entrepreneur, Maggie L. Walker. Richmond does not have a street named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

When the city erects anything else that depicts the Confederacy -- the Lee mural, for example -- blacks say they feel slighted.

This year, hoping to avoid confrontations over the issue, city officials established a committee to set up guidelines for spending public money and naming public monuments.

Charles D. Chambliss, a black lawyer, heads the committee. He would love to see the city remove the Confederate statues and rename the streets commemorating Lee, Davis and Jeb Stuart.

"Blacks and others have always been displeased with these monuments," Chambliss says. "They are symbols for some people who visit the city. Is that how we want to portray Richmond?"

Chambliss remembers visiting a Civil War battlefield near Richmond a dozen years ago. There he saw a small plaque that described how black Union soldiers stormed a fort and suffered heavy casualties. Several of those soldiers received Medals of Honor and helped dispel the notion that blacks would flee from fighting.

Standing at the plaque, surrounded by the eroding earthworks and trenches of the fort, Chambliss says, he began to weep over the loss of life and lack of a memorial.

"If this had been Confederate soldiers," he says, "there would be a multi-ton, marble statue commemorating their efforts."

Most historians say they don't want the Confederate statues removed or other streets and bridges renamed. But they wouldn't mind seeing more monuments to blacks and other minorities who have received less notice in history books.

"These voices have not been heard in the past," says Charles F. Bryan Jr., director of the Virginia Historical Society. "That doesn't mean you erase or tear down old statues. As you move forward, you recognize other members of the community."

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