The old Style Council song “Walls Come Tumbling Down” has been running through my head all week as we watch the commemorative landscape of Richmond being re-made in real time:
Are you gonna try to make this work
Or spend your days down in the dirt
You see things can change
Yes and walls can come tumbling down
“Walls Come Tumbling Down” captures the heady optimism of an era when music seemed the way to right the wrongs of the world, from apartheid in South Africa to famine. But it also expresses the dizzying sense of change when structures that stood for so long they seemed eternal suddenly collapse under the weight of public protest.
Such was the case this week, when J.E.B. Stuart, the last of the Confederate tribute statutes on city-owned property in Richmond was removed, leaving only Robert E. Lee looming over Monument Avenue, a lonely general in search of his departed comrades. For now, the pedestals are empty, a reminder that what once stood there is no more.
But what should come next? Who should be commemorated in the absence of Stuart and his comrades? Richmond has already moved to reshape its commemorative landscape, recently adding Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In 2017, the city unveiled a statue of Maggie Walker, an entrepreneur and civic leader who was the first Black woman to found a bank.
President Trump has his own ideas, announcing plans for a National Garden of American Heroes that would include what historian Karen Cox termed a “random” selection of figures from across American history, including Davy Crockett, Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Susan B. Anthony, General George S. Patton, evangelist Billy Graham, Harriet Tubman, the Wright brothers, Frederick Douglas, and a trifecta of already much-memorialized Virginia-born presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, as well as first lady Dolley Madison.
Arkansas-based Walmart announced that it would cover the cost of replacing that state’s two Confederate-linked statues in the U.S. Capitol’s Statutory Hall with statues of Civil Rights activist Daisy Bates, who was an advisor to the Little Rock Nine, and Johnny Cash. In Tennessee, there’s a petition drive underway to replace the state’s Confederate statues with statues of Dolly Parton. Some have suggested that empty pedestals, or public art spaces, are more appropriate ways to contemplate both racism’s legacy and a hopefully less racist future.
Encyclopedia Virginia would like to know what you think. Who would you memorialize in Virginia to better reflect the state’s inclusive history? Which individuals, or movements, or communities are worthy of commemoration and how should they be commemorated? Reply in the comments below or to firstname.lastname@example.org.