Monument Avenue: A Walk of Fame or a Walk of Shame?

"Atlanta has Coca-Cola and 'Gone With the Wind.' Seattle has the Space Needle. Houston has oil. Richmond has Monument Avenue. Even people who haven't visited know about Monument Avenue."


Although knowledge of Monument Avenue may be widespread throughout this country, the significance of its public statuary and the depth of personal attachment to its commemoration of the confederate cause is not common among all Americans. The essence of this street is undeniably entrenched in regional pride and pre-war southern tradition; the avenue's construction was the result of Virginians' desire to honor one of their most important heroes, General Robert E. Lee. Fundraising efforts championed by such groups as the Lee Memorial Foundation and the United Daughters of the Confederacy publicized the desire to immortalize Lee. This project successfully won the emotional as well as the financial support of southerners sympathetic to the confederate "lost cause." Subsequently, a hundred thousand people converged upon Richmond on May 29, for the unveiling of the Lee statue. The success of the Lee statue in symbolically healing the south's wounded pride during the antebellum era of reconstruction prompted the erection of four more confederate statues creating a public space known as far as Europe as one of America's most beautiful boulevard. Looking at the grandeur and beauty of the street, one could easily question which side really won the Civil War.

It seems ironic that a historical relic dedicated to the commemoration of men who seceded from this country, fought for the white man's right to own slaves, and then lost the war would achieve the national and international recognition as that attained by Monument Avenue. Why, one is left to wonder, is monument avenue compelling to southerners and non-southerners alike? A large part of the explanation lies within the physical design and architecture of the boulevard and its surrounding homes. Monument Avenue was a product of "The City Beautiful Movement," initiated by the architecture of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. The symmetry and structure gave Americans who complained about the chaos of urban life the glimpse of a city "holding to an even cornice line and bathed with sculpture and art."2 Americans emotionally drained after the devestation of the Civil War and the energy expended during reconstruction ebraced the peaceful design of this architecture. Monument Avenue thus became Richmond's interpretation of the movement--a movement influencing the design of cities all across the nation. Although derived from the French model of the boulevard, Monument Avenue diverged from this European design in its lack of uniformity in architecture, the absence of a grand public building anchoring the avenue, and failure of its monuments to be the "hub" of anything, thereby distinguishing itself as something uniquely American. The street's name and defining feature-- the monuments, also distinguishe Monument Avenue as unique from American boulevards. In its socially historic context, Monument Avenue was a response to a national movement and therefore created a public space rich in aesthetic beauty appreciated by most Americans regardless of their regional identity.

But the "consistent iconographic program" among the monuments punctuating the boulevard has subverted its "American" design with its dedication to the preservation of southern dignity and pride. As Richard Guy Wilson stated, "it may be a place of residences and churches, a street of movement and communication, but ultimately Monument Avenue is the site of memorials to the Confederacy."3 The strong sense of regional tradition inherent in this statuary becomes evident as southerners unite in their resistance against the additions and modifications proposed in the last thirty years. The first attempted alteration to Monument Avenue occurred on September 4, 1968 as asphalt-laying machines intended to pave over the historic Belgian blocks comprising the avenue's surface. Successfully halted by the efforts of one Monument Avenue resident, this proposed change to the avenue's authentic design "intensified Richmond's pride in her charming avenue, stirred up many a heated discussion, and plunged all but the very young into the misty delights of nostalagia." For these residents, Monument Avenue, indeed has become "a state of mind, compounded of habit tradition and memory."4

Twenty-two years later, this awakened sense of regional pride still runs strong in residents loyal to their southern heritage. In November of 1991, Richmond's city councilman Chuck Richardson proposed adding two statues commemorating leaders of the civil rights movement to the Confederate heroes already immortalized on Monument Avenue. Richardson argued that the only way to establish "a proper sense of balance and fairness..requires appropriate recognition those heroes of the civil rights movement who exhibited similar traits of courage, valor, and leadership and are of equal historic significance."5 Thirty-two percent of the Richmond residents polled opposed this addition. Richardson's proposal and the fifty percent of those polled who supported his plan foreshadows the escalating controversy surrounding Monument Avenue today. Clearly, some southerners-including Richmond residents-have begun to realize the oxymoronic nature of Richmond's Confederate shrine and therefore desire to offset the glorification of the men who supported the institution of slavery by honoring those who later fought for equal rights. The advocates of this change have obviously not forgotten the violent bloodshed of the Civil War, nor which side was morally wrong and subsequently lost the war. They seek to achieve a true sense of social healing by commemorating the men who secured racial equality and peace within our nation. In their eyes, two more statues would enhance the beauty and historical significance of the avenue; in the eyes of southern loyalists, this addition would only corrupt the purity in the avenue's preservation of the "Old South."

The resistance efforts to these two changes were merely a precursor to the opposition which erupted only two years later over the addition of a statue commemorating the athletic and humanitarian achievements of Richmond native Arthur Ashe. Southerners and non-southerners alike voiced opposition to the Ashe statue's placement on Monument Avenue. Many Americans, removed in physical distance from the statuary and disgusted by the avenue's celebration of a group of men who ripped this nation apart with their racist ideology, believe that Ashe's achievement as an African American, an athlete, and a human being would be devalued in placing his statue in the company of his historical oppressors. In contrast, some southerners ascertain that Ashe's statue would devalue the "southern state of mind" implicit within the statuary's symbolic language. Meanwhile, those who foremost appreciate the avenue's beauty and do not view this issue with historically southern racial ideologies, (located predominantly outside of the south) do not understand why the Ashe statue should not be placed upon the same street where Richmond commemorates all of its great men.

This debate reveals the heart of the controversy surrounding Monument Avenue: the conflict between its national form versus its regional content. Americans who ascribe to the aesthetic beauty of the monuments design compete for control over the avenue's definitive theme and future function with southern loyalists, who use the southern iconography to legitimate their regional pride.

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