Monument Avenue is Richmond’s Racist Row. Will Tearing it Down Redeem a City?

Historians in the News
tags: Confederacy, monuments, Richmond, White Supremacy, New South

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The heart of a prosperous, racist community

Henry Grady was one of the white South’s greatest evangelists of the post-Civil War era. Part owner of what was then known as the Atlanta Constitution, Grady turned the newspaper into a nationally prominent platform touting his vision for a “New South,” one that, as Grady told a gathering prominent of New York businessmen in 1886, would reject its feudal history of masters and slaves in favor of a brighter, more capitalist vision.

“The old South rested everything on slavery and agriculture, unconscious that these could neither give nor maintain healthy growth,” Grady said in a speech to the New England Society. But the New South was a middle-class society, powered by an emergent bourgeoisie. It was “less splendid on the surface” than antebellum society, Grady said, “but stronger at the core — a hundred farms for every plantation, fifty homes for every palace — and a diversified industry that meets the complex needs of this complex age.”

Grady’s vision, however, always had a sinister side. The New South was no longer dominated exclusively by plantation owners who lorded over Black workers like medieval viscounts. But the emerging class of white professionals and capitalists were often just as racist and exploitative as their slave-owning ancestors.

Less than four years after Grady spoke in New York, around 150,000 people gathered in Richmond to watch the dedication of Monument Avenue’s Robert E. Lee statue. It was a celebration of a man who killed his own countrymen in defense of slavery. And it was a baptism, of sorts, for an American traitor. Lee’s sin of treason was washed away, and the Confederate general was reborn as a heroic figure.

But the dedication of this monument wasn’t just a declaration of a racist ideology. It was also a sales pitch to the very businessmen whom Grady touted as the region’s new heroes.

It was “an opportunity to showcase a new real-estate development that included wide boulevards and Monument Avenue itself,” historian Kevin Levin wrote in the Atlantic. The neighborhood would attract a wide range of Richmond’s new oligarchs. “Bank presidents, manufacturers, lawyers, and real-estate developers” — all of whom were white — “purchased lots and built impressive homes along Monument Avenue,” he continued.

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