Stonewall Jackson Monument, Richmond, Virginia – Through My Grandparents’ Eyes

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Among the last days of the Stonewall Jackson Monument, Richmond, VA. Photo: Tonya Rice

It’s been a few weeks now since the Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia started coming down. As the former Capitol of the Confederacy, this is major. Before the city began to formally remove them, several had been yanked from their pedestals, including the figure of Jefferson Davis, from the elaborate memorial to the former president of the Confederacy, on the city’s renowned Monument Avenue. So, as a means to protect citizens from getting hurt, maimed, or killed by the statues as they sought to rip them down, the mayor of Richmond ordered all remaining Confederate monuments and symbols removed.

The first one to go was the one of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

No official announcement was made as to when the statues were coming down. We only knew by then that they were going to be taken down in a safe and effective manner. During the occasion, either one heard about it while in progress via hearsay (or in this day and age: social media) or saw it on a later regularly, scheduled news broadcast. Luckily for us, it was the former. On that afternoon of July 1, 2020, my husband happened to go on Facebook for a moment. If he hadn’t at that time, we would have probably missed seeing the first monument being taken down by a government decree, an act by the City of Richmond, the former Capitol of the Confederacy. Can’t help but to repeat this point. It’s really extraordinary, truly beyond major.

A broadcast link from a local television station took us to the event online, where a crowd was swelling around the monument. In the parking lot of a Tropical Smoothie several miles away, on the other side of town, across the James River, on my husband’s cell phone, we watched in awe, as two men worked their way around the plinth of the Stonewall Jackson statue to it bring down. A storm was underway on our side of town and I remember being worried about them up there around that metal and praying they’d get through it before the storm hit over there. On the phone, we could see the clouds in their horizon.

However, within all that time, as I watched it, a smattering of emotions from seemingly nowhere hit me and, just as swiftly, something in me broke. I’m sipping on my Mango Magic smoothie watching the scene and suddenly I’m overwhelmed by the sight of them working on that statue – by the fact that a monument was coming down and that it was under an order by this particular local government to do so. But – it wasn’t me feeling it for meit was me feeling it for my grandparents, mainly my grandmother. She was born and raised here (my grandfather moved here from Tennessee after serving in WWII). Nevertheless, they lived a lot longer under the shadow of those things and of what they represented. They watched other monuments and symbols being put up during the Jim Crow era – long after the Civil War, within THEIR lifetimes, in the freaking 20th century! I felt that all shit for them right then and there, for the first time so clearly, more so than ever before. I felt it hard, too. It was like seeing it for them, and it still hurt me just a bit more knowing they weren’t here to witness it, and I simply choked up.

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My grandfather was an entrepreneur and a very well-known advocate for civil rights, justice, and equality for the black community in this city. He frequently spoke at city council meetings to question laws and tactics that were aimed to fiscally hurt the black community. His business location was one ripped away by the city in Jackson Ward to build the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike back in the 1950s. Fortunately, that didn’t stop his fight. He continued his business in a different location and worked passionately with the less-fortunate to help get them on their feet through vocational training and employment with his business. Now, I can’t recall really discussing the monuments with him and while I can say that I know he wasn’t a fan, I do know for certain that my grandmother absolutely abhorred them.  My grandfather may have ignored them, not really let them faze him, but she didn’t. She’d mentioned them with disgust. Besides knowing what they meant, she’d long felt what they were to mean as well: Reminders of a past where we were legally subservient, less than people; oppressive symbols of hatred and disrespect towards the black community. Those monuments defined this city. Hell, they were also marketing ploys for the city in tourist literature. They even attracted folks from many miles away to move here and put a nearly floor-to-ceiling sized portrait of Robert E. Lee in their office, in which they had black co-workers and naturally, to keep their jobs, the black folks said nothing. Sound personal? It is.

Those marble and metal structures became the focal point of the city; the city allowed it and survived on it.

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Year after year after year ad nauseum, the question was posed to the local government here to have them removed; Richmond shut the issue down. It was an argument periodically taken to the General Assembly where it was also shut down. Even with black political officials in office. The votes to do so outnumbered them. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers when much of the country finally decided that black people were actually people and perhaps should have been considered in the “All Men are Created Equal” clause of the Declaration of Independence, protesters took the matter of the monuments in their hands by ripping them down and the city realized – it took the concern of safety for individuals – that it was time for it to do its part and formally take them down.

As that humongous sculpture of Jackson was being prepared to come down, the lump in my throat that had formed, gave way to my tears of joy as it was pulled from the plinth, hoisted up, and suspended in air before set upon the street. Right then as well, the thunderstorm had reached the area. We heard the thunder rumble overhead and watched the heavy rains fall over the crowd. Then – someone rang the church bells at the First Baptist Church of Richmond just steps away. It was absolutely glorious and in my own pride of being able to witness it, I’d like to just think that my grandparents, along with my other relatives no longer here who were treated with little dignity because of their race in this city, also saw it happening after all.

 

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Day after Stonewall Jackson sculpture removal. Photo: Tonya Rice

Meanwhile – we’re still awaiting the fall of the Robert E. Lee Monument – the one that started it all in Richmond. Lawsuits, of all things, are holding that one up… details to soon follow here.

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