Richmond’s Confederate Monuments Were Used to Sell a Segregated Neighborhood

tags: racism, segregation, Confederacy, monuments

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author and editor of two books. He is the author of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth.

On May 29, 1890, roughly 150,000 people gathered for the dedication of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. It was an opportunity to celebrate a man who many believed embodied the virtues of the old South, the “Christian Warrior” who bravely fought to the bitter end for the Confederacy’s Lost Cause. The Richmond industrialist and former Confederate staff officer Archer Anderson predicted that the monument would continue to teach “generations yet unborn,” and that it would “stand as the embodiment of a brave and virtuous people’s ideal leader!”

It was also an opportunity to showcase a new real-estate development that included wide boulevards and Monument Avenue itself—a divided boulevard, 140 feet wide, featuring parallel rows of trees along its center and another row lining the housefronts. The neighborhood was developed exclusively for white residents. Eventually, the avenue would feature monuments to Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and J. E. B. Stuart; to Confederate President Jefferson Davis; and to the Confederate official Matthew Fontaine Maury.

The Confederate monuments dedicated throughout the South from 1880 to 1930 were never intended to be passive commemorations of a dead past; rather, they helped do the work of justifying segregation and relegating African Americans to second-class status. Monument Avenue was unique in this regard. While most monuments were added to public spaces such as courthouse squares, parks, and intersections, Monument Avenue was conceived as part of the initial plans for the development of the city’s West End neighborhood—a neighborhood that explicitly barred black Richmonders.

By the turn of the 20th century, civic leaders in Richmond and elsewhere embraced the economic vision of a “new South” led, according to the historian Reiko Hillyer, by a “rising class of businessmen and industrialists who owed their growing economic power to alliances with northern business interests” and who “sought to promote an era of national reconciliation and a climate favorable to business and industrial expansion.” These men—bank presidents, manufacturers, lawyers, and real-estate developers—purchased lots and built impressive homes along Monument Avenue.

Throughout the development of the neighborhood, real-estate companies used the monuments to entice buyers. In 1913, the Greater Richmond Realty Company took out an ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that included an illustration of the proposed Jackson monument under the headline: “Stuart, Lee, Davis, Have Already Been Honored. No Longer Neglect Jackson.” The depiction of the intersection along with a tree-lined field in the background made it easier for potential buyers to envision their home overlooking the Confederate general. The ad implied that Jackson would not be fully honored until all the lots were claimed and occupied.

Real-estate companies also reassured potential buyers through restrictive covenants that “no lots can ever be sold or rented in MONUMENT AVENUE PARK to any person of African descent.” This was a reassuring message for white Richmonders during a time of unrest and uncertainty. Business and civic leaders worried about labor activism among the city’s black tobacco workers and elsewhere during this period of industrial expansion. Many still recalled with horror the brief but consequential period from 1879 to 1883, in which a biracial party known as the Readjusters controlled the wheels of government throughout the city and state. Large numbers of black Virginians voted, attended public schools, and were elected to local and state positions, all under the leadership of the former Confederate general William Mahone.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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