What Comes After?

Published:July 9, 2020 by Patti Miller

The J.E.B. Stuart statue in Richmond, 1920. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photography Division

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 ev@virginiahumanities.org.

Discussion

8 Comments on “What Comes After?”

  1. J. Andrew Edwards

    Rather than memorialization, some engaging contemporary/conceptual art that brings the community together would be a great change of pace for RVA, which for far too long has been stuck in the past. Minneapolis has “Spoonbridge and Cherry”; Chicago has “Flamingo” and “Cloud Gate.” And Patrick Dougherty has put up his temporary Stickworks projects all over the country. Considering the buzz that surrounded Kehinde Wiley this year, RVA is ripe for aesthetic transformation via diverse, colorful, public art.

    1. Trixie P.

      I agree with J. Andrew Edwards and Brenda! Enough already with putting people on pedestals – pun very much intended! Let’s focus on art, ideas, and nature that are inspiring and healing.

  2. John

    I agree in large part with J. Andrew Edward’s response.
    I also seriously hope Richmond will move the Arthur Ashe monument to the past site of the “Stonewall” Jackson monument.
    Richmond native, tennis champion, & humanitarian Arthur Ashe would then be on Arthur Ashe Boulevard’s intersection with Monument Ave. He and the young people represented in that monument would then have a far more visible & prominent location.
    I realize there may be problems relating to the size of that site & both the size & scale of the Ashe monument, but I am entirely confident they can be overcome aesthetically & successfully.
    As a Richmond native I believe this move would send a powerful message of change & progress.
    I also suggest a diverse public art & memorial commission similar to the one in Washington, D.C.
    May it be as representative as possible and proceed deliberately with more than ample opportunity for public comment.

  3. James Arnold

    Have you thought about the restorative value of memorializing Gen. William Mahone, whose memory was buried by the Lost Cause mythology. Why? He made common cause with newly enfranchised black folks. How revolutionary was that?

  4. Lloyd Wolf

    I suggest as replacements one of our poet laureates, Rita Dove; Virginia native, African-American astronaut Leland D. Melvin; Chief Powhatan, and a white-tailed deer,

  5. Azar "Ace" ATTURA

    JOHN HENRY– THE John Henry — the Steel Drivin Man — who, so says this book– actually DID exist, was wrongfully accused of crime in the early days of the Reconstruction in Richmond — spent time in the Richmond Penitentiary (“the white house”), and labored long on the railroads– eventually giving up his life, but immortalized in words, poems and song ever since. John Henry –Fact? Fiction? This book, which starts out slowly like a fully loaded steam train starting cold and going uphill– eventually settles into a beautiful mesmerizing rhythm as the narrative unfolds.
    Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend
    by Scott Reynolds Nelson | Published 2008
    (PS– do you know Gandy Dancers still exist?? I met one on the DC Metro a few years back)

  6. Jeffrey Kirwan

    I agree with Brenda, let’s memorialize trees, perhaps even an extinct species, such as passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet.

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