RICHMOND – In the onetime seat of the Confederacy, three police cars pulled into a traffic circle along Monument Avenue and took up perimeter positions.
A cop got out and began a slow patrol around a towering statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who looks out from 60 feet in the air at a city grappling with race, reconciliation and questions of memorials to dead men and causes long believed lost.
Ducking past the officer, a grandmother took little girls' photographs beneath Lee’s monument. The scene was serene this weekday, far different than the chaos, hatred and violence that enveloped another Lee statue 70 miles west of here in Charlottesville last weekend.
Ambling through the streets of Richmond on a summer afternoon, plenty of people shared complex conversations about what it meant to be in the capital of the Confederate States.
In the 'Cathedral of the Confederacy'
The Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, grabbed his journal, scratching a note when it struck him. He was working on an important Sunday sermon and thinking about Isaiah 56:1: “Maintain justice, and do what is right.”
His Richmond congregation used to be the “Cathedral of the Confederacy,” with Lee and his wife and President Jefferson Davis as members. A pew in the church is marked as the place Davis was sitting when he received the message Lee could no longer defend Richmond: the city would need to be evacuated.
Adams-Riley descends from 11 Confederate soldiers — great-great-grandfathers killed in Petersburg’s trench warfare or wounded and captured in Hanover County or defeated at Appomattox Court House, where the brutal Civil War finally, mercifully ended.
“We Southerners have often made it an either-or thing,” he said. “That we either recognize our ancestors for their bravery or we get honest about all that was so dark, so terribly dark, about our culture that rested on the back of enslaved men, women and children. But the truth should set us free. We can afford to tell the whole story. What we want is more history, not to erase history.
“Personally, I recognize that my ancestors were deeply wrong about race and about slavery in a way that was heart-breaking,” the minister said. “But I also recognize that they had their own virtues and acted heroically” at times.
Adams-Riley has acted with courage himself in recent years, pushing his congregation to reconsider how it looks at Confederate culture.
His mostly white church has been on that journey since 2015, since Charleston. Echoes of Dylann Roof’s gunfire rippled again this week in Richmond. That it was a Southern tragedy amplified its message here.
Following that massacre of black churchgoers in South Carolina by a white supremacist, St. Paul’s Episcopal challenged itself to respond. After much discussion and listening, they did.
The Richmond congregation removed every image of the Confederate flag displayed inside the building. Since then, members have made it their mission to learn the history of their ancestors and their deeds, in order to better understand their city and move forward — in cooperation with nearby historically black churches.
“Those dead ancestors — they are dead,” Adams-Riley said. “When a black child or adult walks down the avenue and sees all those monuments … we have some work to do. I know better than to believe that they feel welcome here.”
What to do with the statues
On Wednesday, Richmond’s African-American mayor announced a sudden reversal. The Monument Avenue Commission should consider the removal of some or all Confederate statues, Mayor Levar Stoney said.
The statues were built after 1890 in the expansion of Richmond during a period when powerful whites rolled back freedoms assured to blacks after the war through a law instituting what would become known as Jim Crow, a form of apartheid.
Stoney formed the commission in June after taking office, and the discussion before the Charlottesville attack focused on adding art or messages to broaden the context of Monument Avenue, not to take away statues.
The tide turned quickly following Saturday's violence in Charlottesville. Clashes between protesters and counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally against the removal of Charlottesville's Lee statue turned deadly. Peaceful protester Heather Heyer was killed in a car attack and two members of the Virginia State Police died when their patrol helicopter crashed and burst into flames near a golf course.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued a statement Wednesday evening calling for towns and cities, and the Virginia General Assembly, to consider moving Confederate monuments across the Commonwealth away from public spaces and into museums.
Elsewhere in cities once sympathetic to Confederate causes, monuments began coming down, in places like Durham, N.C., and Baltimore. The discussion about taking action crested quickly here in the metropolis along the James River. And Richmonders seemed eager to talk about the debate around town.
Outside Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Art, in the embrace of a soft August afternoon, a young couple strolled holding hands.
Marcellus Wright of Richmond said the fatal attack in Charlottesville was heavy on their minds, with personal connections to that city and their own interracial relationship as background.
“I’m not shocked at all,” said Wright, 22, who attended University of Virginia and is now a teacher in Richmond. “The same systems that allowed for this rally to happen pretty much undeterred are the same systems that are keeping the students I’m teaching in poverty and in situations of distress and exclusion.”
He said his mission as a teacher must be to combat the lies spread by white nationalist Charlottesville marchers and to bolster the confidence of young black men and women.
About half of Richmond’s residents are black and 45% are white, according to U.S. Census data. Only 20% of the state is black.
“There does need to be a conversation, and things still do need to change,” Wright said about race relations and legacies of injustice.
“A lot of my friends who went to U.Va. with me say this (week) is horrible, this is in no way reflective of Charlottesville … we love each other here. This has no place here,” he said. “And then there are black people who say this is how it has always been. They say, ‘See! See!’
“There are moments when you can see the whole iceberg, but for a long time things have been treated as isolated incidents. We can’t treat this as something that just happened in Charlottesville.”
Brooke Winters, his girlfriend, said she believes that well-meaning white people no longer have the luxury of staying neutral. “It’s less ignorable,” Winters, 25, said. “This week for me wasn’t surprising, but was so painful.”
It has re-stoked her passion at her job, a nonprofit that helps charities work toward the goals of reconciliation.
'We should just all be humans'
Nearby, a visitor stared at the impassive Georgia marble façade of the United Daughters of the Confederacy building. It’s just one of the historic sites from the era that litter Richmond: the White House of the Confederacy, Tredegar Iron Works and Hollywood Cemetery, where 18,000 Confederate soldiers are buried.
At the Daughters’ memorial building, a design adorns the massive bronze doors — a cotton boll. The crop of the South, of slaves. Hard, hot, bloody work. The building is still used by the active organization of women centered around exclusive white Southern bloodlines.
“I’m glad I got to see some of this stuff before people try to take it away,” said Dave Scarbro, a bald, stocky man from Round Lake, Ill., wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
“My dad is black and my mom is white. And people have issues on race … but I read a quote from Gen. Lee in the museum about wanting people to come together. How profound is that? … I don’t think we’ve ever healed from our rift.”
Scarbro, who describes himself as a conservative and a history buff, said he would like to see current racial politics transform into something less divisive, building on the foundational agreement that America is an amazing place of opportunity.
“This is the greatest country in the world,” he said. “The people that were fighting down in Charlottesville, neither one of those groups are what America is. America is when you can go to your neighbor and you know they are the weird liberals or weird people on the right, churchgoing people, and you guys can sit in the backyard and barbecue and tell each other what you think, but at the end of the day move forward together.”
A truck zoomed by on the street, shushing the throbbing cicadas, and Scarbro — now on a roll — started to quote Dr. Martin Luther King until his Uber pulled up. Then he rode off, short visit to the former glories of the Confederacy finished.
Not everyone in Richmond wanted to revisit history this week, preferring to mourn the Charlottesville tragedy and then simply move forward despite a 24-hour news cycle.
Joyce Terry milked the last days of August before school starts, talking with neighbors on her stone stoop, not far from the distinctive belfry of the white frame Confederate Memorial Chapel. Terry’s home sits on the edge of the beautiful Fan district, through which Monument Avenue parades.
Her young daughter clambered up and down the steps in flip-flops, and the mailman brought a handful of envelopes.
She said her focus is on her city — doing her job teaching biology to a diverse group of high school students preparing to be successful adults.
“We’re in a time when this should not be a question,” Terry said. “I’m totally up for peaceful protest. But I don’t think race should be an issue any more. I feel like we should just move past it. We should just all be humans.”
Monuments as reminders
With bronze men posed throughout this city — politicians and warriors who defended the Confederacy’s political and industrial stronghold until it fell — history and race are hard to dodge, though.
Deeper into the Fan District, at Lee’s monument on the boulevard, Frank Ortega visited town.
A writer and student of history, he was passing through Richmond on a solo 10-day road trip, camping and following Robert E. Lee’s footsteps. On his sojourn, he traveled to Lee’s resting place, Lexington, when he heard about the tragedy in Charlottesville. His planned route brought him to the former capital of the Confederacy.
To forget the history of the South’s rebellion and system of slavery would be to erase its lessons, said Ortega, who said he is related to Lee. “You can tear down all these monuments, but it’s not going to change the problems,” he said. “You need security and income and real equality.”
Also, we need the reminders that monuments represent, Ortega said. We need to learn about the chain of events represented by history — whether it’s the Civil War, Watergate or the Newark, N.J., uprisings — or we’ll repeat mistakes.
“We’re still living with the repercussions of history right now,” he said. “It’s fine for these monuments to be a flashpoint if we can get a dialogue going, but to tear them down and think that is going to improve the situation? I don’t see how that is possible.
“History is the most living thing I can imagine. And Charlottesville … was a perfect illustration in the simplest way of why history matters and why education matters.”
Removing historic statues destroys sites that can serve as focal points for constructive conversations to take place, he said. “These are the sad and beautiful anchors of a place. We have to be really careful about pulling these down.”
Ortega stared some more at Lee, cricking his neck to see the general high atop his horse — a heavy piece of sculpture that thousands of people long ago helped pull in wagons to be assembled at the site.
Less than a mile away, in the Virginia Commonwealth University area, you find George Washington Carver Elementary — a school built for black children in 1886 that suffered decades of neglect but recently has built up its academics.
Across the street from the school’s entrance, lifelong Richmond resident Lisa Brown leaned on the railing of her wooden porch with a friend, resting after a hard day’s work.
“We down here in Virginia — Richmond, Virginia — we are together as one,” she said. “We are Americans. We truly believe it to the heart. And we believe in the First Amendment.
“But when you get lawless with the government, the people are lawless. … This country is becoming lawless, and Charlottesville is a prime example. I should be able to speak without you wanting to do any harm or any wrong to me other than talking to me as grown folks do. The human right, that’s what it’s called. Something that young, crazy folks, the neo-Nazi supremacists” don’t respect.
'Hate is too great a burden to bear'
As Brown spoke, people traveled from across the city to pack into Third Street Bethel AME Church, nearer to the Virginia State Capitol. They filled its pews and balconies, and lined the walls up to the creaky doors in the back.
The open, cross-congregation prayer vigil was organized to remember the victims of Saturday’s events in Charlottesville. A diverse crowd bowed their heads and let the events of the past few days wash over them.
The Rev. Courtney Allen of Grace Baptist rose to speak from the pulpit.
“Hate is too great a burden to bear,” she said, quoting Dr. King.
“Well! Well!” an older man exclaimed in back.
“What on Earth do we do when hate has had the bullhorn?” she asked them. “Where do we go from here as people … who really do believe that love is louder than any form of hate?”
In Richmond, our challenge is similar to Charlottesville, she told them. “But we have an opportunity to make another way. I think that means we have some decisions to make.”
Allen spoke about Monument Avenue. She talked about it being turned into a boulevard that looked to the future, with new images either added to what’s there or replacing the Confederate statues. “What if we dreamed up some monuments to the future in which we hope to live?”
People began to clap. “Amen!” exclaimed someone in the rear pews.
Outside, a wide red sun started to set and throw its glow against the tight brick of the historic church. Allen reminded the congregations of the words of the civil rights leader: “I have decided to love.”
Then hundreds of people filed out, with their own silent or spoken declarations to take some action, any action against the worrisome tide of the moment.
Blocks away, where the sermon could not reach, the metal giants of the confederacy still stood. At least for now.