Here I offer an immodest proposal to replace statues of Confederate leaders on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia with other figures from history who stand for freedom, racial justice and equality. These heroes include black and white abolitionists along with Virginians and others who played an important, positive role in U.S. history.
In a nod to preservationists and American history buffs who may like to preserve the martial feel of Monument Avenue statues without the Confederate content, my list is heavy on military figures, but with new cultural diversity. Also, for continuity, I focus on the Civil War period, but present an alternative group from the American Revolution. My list is not meant to be exhaustive. I hope my ideas will inspire you to come up with your own. Click here to jump to the list of statue candidates.
After years of political skirmishing, protests against the police killings of George Floyd and other African Americans seem to have sounded the final bugle call of retreat for the Confederate statues of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.
Early in June, after protesters covered its base with graffiti, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam pledged to remove the 130-year-old statue of Robert E. Lee, which is located on state property. “It was wrong then, and it is wrong now, so we are taking it down,” Northam explained.
Around the same time, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council members said that they’ll move quickly to remove the other four Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. Statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and JEB Stuart, and naval officer and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury are located on property owned by the City of Richmond.
Taking down statues is expensive. The removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans three years ago cost $2.1 million. But it’s worth every penny to rid Richmond of prominent symbols of the “Lost Cause” of establishing an independent Southern nation dedicated to protecting and expanding slavery. Most black people and many whites rightly associate the statues on Monument Avenue with white supremacy, discrimination and violence against black citizens.
But putting up statues is even more expensive than taking them down. It cost the VMFA $2 million to erect sculptor Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War” in 2019. This stunning work inverts the usual formula of Confederate-general-on-horse. In Wiley’s version, a young black man with dreadlocks in urban streetwear rides a muscular warhorse modeled on the horse from JEB Stuart’s statue.
So, once the statues come down on Monument Avenue, will anything go in their place? Or will Richmond’s grandest drive be left with five empty plinths on a grassy median?
Ad agencies could already be salivating at the potential for lucrative corporate sponsorships after the Confederates’ last retreat. For example, Robert E. Lee could be replaced by the “Snagajob Median at Monument Place.”
If Richmond removes a bad outdoor civics lesson and can’t come up with a plan to replace it with better monuments of historical leaders worth celebrating, then corporate marketers may be happy to step in to replace civics with commercials. Capitalism abhors a vacuum, after all.
Monument Avenue without Monuments
Pulling Lee and his co-secessionists off their high horses sends a message that today’s Richmond is post-Confederate, which is a good thing.
But leaving their pedestals empty risks sending a less worthy message that Richmond is also post-commemorative, post-historical, post-heroic and, yes, post-beautiful.
What would Monument Avenue be without monuments?
If the plinths are left empty, or worse, if they’re taken down along with the Confederate statues, then the City might as well change the street’s name to Anti-Monument Avenue. Then, if Christo were still alive, he could drape the pedestals (or the empty median) with yellow nylon. The whole street could become a different kind of monument, a cynical postmodern statement that our society doesn’t need to celebrate heroes from history anymore.
What a shame to take one of America’s most stunning urban grand boulevards and turn it into a denuded aesthetic landscape of statue stumps. Or patches of dirt where pedestals used to be.
Either way, Richmond could kiss the grandeur of Monument Avenue goodbye. Without serious public art commemorating serious history, the street would just be another four-lane thoroughfare with grass in the middle and expensive houses on either side. And who knows how expensive those houses would actually still be, now that they’d be located on Monument-Free Avenue.
Of course, the street would still have the friendly statue of Arthur Ashe surrounded by kids down at the end, situated at ground level. City authorities could move Ashe closer in and put him on Lee’s pedestal. Putting people on a pedestal means elevating them. What we elevate says a lot about us as a society.
But if we decide to elevate no one, then that says something about our society too.
No Heroes, No Controversy — but at What Cost?
Lately, Americans seem to have gotten nervous about elevating any figure from our past to hero status.
Many people on the left are leery of the heroes we learned about in history class. And since Americans disagree about so many issues today, we’re afraid we can’t agree on any new people from the past to claim that we admire now. Everybody’s got some skeletons in the closet anyway.
So, when we want to commemorate someone, we do it more modestly, often in abstract form, like the Vietnam Veterans Wall. The stark design and list of names engraved in marble is indeed moving. But an abstract object like a wall, no matter how elegant and dignified, gives a very different feel from a human figure. And very different from a person on a pedestal.
Sometimes we are still willing to depict people, whether abstractly or with realism, but again, we tend to do it modestly at ground level. Richmond offers the example of the civil rights marchers done in bas relief on the grounds of the Capitol building, placed not up high but down at eye level.
This modesty in commemorating our heroes may be a mistake. Past ages knew that there was power in raising someone up high. It gives the rest of us a model to literally look up to. A figure on a pedestal, whether a god or a saint or a secular saint like a lawgiver, artist, writer, musician or even a general reminds us that there are noble qualities in all of us.
Such immodest monuments inspire ordinary people to immodest levels of achievement.
From Washington, DC and New York City to London, Paris and Rome, the world’s great cities are all ennobled by statues of great men — and some women — up high.
Richmond should not lose its chance to enjoy a place among these cities just to get rid of a few Confederates.
Throughout history, when statues came down, other statues went up. In 1776, New Yorkers pulled down King George III and melted down his head to make musket balls. A later generation of New Yorkers put up a statue of George Washington.
Since the time has come to pull down some statues, it’s also the time to put some other statues up. We need to remember worthy leaders from the past to remind us what inspiring leaders should act like today.
We also need to go beyond a childish view of people from history as either all-bad or all-good. Americans are smart enough to understand a bit of nuance in our past, if only our public monuments would treat the public as the intelligent citizens we are.
We still need to judge whether leaders from the past are worth celebrating today. If someone fought for freedom, equality and fairness, then we should embrace them as a hero in an age where we desperately need heroes. And if some historical figure showed personal growth in their character and in their politics, that can make them all the more inspiring and worthy of celebrating today.
Below, I offer three approaches to use the gorgeous pedestals that will be left behind once General Lee and the other Confederates ride off to their final Appomattox. Used well, those empty pedestals can be the foundation of a renaissance for Monument Avenue and the city and even a rebirth of civic engagement for our whole embattled country.
Drawing on people from the past worth celebrating, Richmond can show the whole country and the world that American history is not just about slavery, oppression and prejudice. While bequeathing us wicked problems, America’s past also planted the seeds for the freedom, fairness and dignity for all that we strive for today.
Candidates for New Statues
Lists below offer ideas for great people from history to replace Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, in three groups, each with a different angle:
- Emancipation and Racial Justice
- Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Reform
- Freedom International
The historical figures in each list came not only from the city of Richmond but also from across Virginia and, in a few cases, from outside the U.S. This follows the original intention of statues on Monument Avenue to draw interest from outside of Virginia. This broader appeal is one aspect of the Confederate statue project worth keeping.
Before the Jefferson Davis statue came down, four out of five Confederate statues depicted Virginians (only Davis came from outside the state). Yet, the significance of the figures extended out into the entire South and beyond.
While getting rid of Confederates, Monument Avenue should continue to represent a larger geography than just the city of Richmond or even the state of Virginia.
The statue of Arthur Ashe gives the city a start at telling its own story in the commemorative area. The lists below propose several other Richmond hometown heroes to show the range of people of achievement both black and white who called the city home.
But since Richmond is the state capital, Monument Avenue should continue to pull figures not just from the city but also from across Virginia for its subjects. The lists below give ideas to do that.
Finally, aspiring to take its place among the great cities of the U.S. and the world, Richmond should also consider historical figures from outside the state and even the nation to establish its international leadership. The lists that follow offer some ideas for figures from other nations with a connection to the history of Virginia and issues of freedom and equality that we face with such urgency today.
Emancipation and Racial Justice
Arthur Ashe, along with the statue of Maggie Walker located west of downtown, ably represent hometown heroes. These two black Richmonders achieved greatness in their fields of sports and business respectively, against the very white supremacy at the heart of the Confederacy and the post-war Lost Cause mythology. Richmond can build on the theme of black triumph by placing statues of black heroes, and white allies, from both Virginia and beyond on the very same pedestals where Confederates stand now.
Three of the figures in the Emancipation and Racial Justice group were from Virginia. The two others came from neighboring Maryland. And all of them are justly celebrated national figures of slavery abolitionism and civil rights who would write Monument Avenue out of the story of racial oppression and into the story of freedom and equality.
The Star: Frederick Douglass
The star of the Emancipation and Racial Justice approach would be Frederick Douglass. The most-photographed American of any color in the nineteenth century, Douglass still enjoys wide enough name recognition to anchor Monument Avenue for locals and tourists alike. But as President Trump’s comment in 2017 shows — “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice” — the most famous black leader before MLK still needs to become even more famous.
After the Civil War, Douglass advised that Americans should forgive but not forget slaveholders and secessionists, and called Confederate statues “monuments of folly.”
Richmond could do a service to historical education today by putting the spotlight on Douglass. Literally.
With the cooperation of State authorities who control the land, Douglass could go on Lee’s pedestal and have the lights shining on him every night.
In keeping with Monument Avenue’s historical focus, other figures in the Emancipation and Racial Justice series would be contemporaries of Douglass from the Civil War era who enjoy some fame today but deserve to become much better known in Virginia and across America.
Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Reform
While the previous group would replace Confederates with their opposites in the form of black and white abolitionists, the Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Reform group takes a more conciliatory approach. It also offers a few military figures as a compromise with preservationists and other people who will miss the Confederate generals for “heritage not hate.” The figures pictured in this group were all Virginians.
This group sends the message that history is complex. Sometimes people changed their views and switched sides from Team Slavery to Team Freedom. Sometimes they defied their family and community to stand up for their ideals of freedom and against secession. And sometimes they did extreme things in a doomed attempt to gain freedom.
This morally nuanced group would help give Americans today permission to loosen their grip on hardened political positions, to change their minds and to see the humanity in people who disagree with us. This group might help bring Richmonders and Virginians together at a time when polarized views of American history are helping to tear us apart.
The Civil War is an inherently divisive story: North vs. South, black vs. white, slave vs. free. The Freedom International group departs from the Civil War era and takes us back to an earlier era of American history with more potential to bring Americans together.
Besides the Civil War, there’s one other heroic period in early American history, the Revolution. Commemorating the Revolutionary period is timely now since the 250th anniversary (the semiquincentennial) of the American Revolution will be celebrated in 2026.
Philadelphia and other cities are already planning their commemorations in 2026. The Freedom International approach to erecting new statues would help add a cosmopolitan cachet to Monument Avenue that would help set up Richmond as a destination for international tourists for the 250th anniversary celebration.
Imagine Monument Avenue as Virginia’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. A grand boulevard whose beauty expresses the highest ideals of freedom and cooperation among nations. And picking figures from different nations would offer opportunities for fundraising abroad.
Other Possible Figures and Approaches
I humbly offer my ideas not as a finished proposal but just as ideas to start a discussion that goes beyond taking down Confederates and onto putting up somebody better. I don’t pretend that my lists are in any way exhaustive. Other worthy historical figures from the Civil War era or other periods would make excellent candidates to replace departing Confederates.
I hope my thoughts will encourage readers to come up with their own ideas for people from history and themes to connect them. Your list might not have as many generals as mine, for example, or so many people from the 18th and 19th centuries. You could certainly pull in more recent figures such as community leaders or civil rights activists.
Here’s a different approach. Richmond could group figures in other themes, going across historical periods, such as:
- Law and Justice: U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Thurgood Marshall (from Maryland), and Richmond civil rights attorney Oliver Hill.
- Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: Thomas Jefferson, Mildred and Richard Loving who broke the ban on interracial marriage, and musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, the Carter Family and Ralph Stanley.
New statues could even depart from the model of depicting a single individual and show groups of people instead. Plinths made for equestrian statues are large enough to hold multiple standing figures. For instance, mounted statues of Lee, Jackson or Stuart could be replaced by a collection of marching soldiers from U.S. Colored Troops or a group of women on the home front in the Civil War, the Revolution or even World War II.
Stop Playing Defense and Start Playing Offense on Outdoor History
Governor Northam is right. Confederate statues never should have gone up in Richmond in the first place. And now it’s long past time for the city to take them down. History matters, the stories we tell about it matter, and public symbols of people from the past matter.
It’s not just symbolism. Righting this wrong perpetrated on Richmond’s public space will send a powerful message that the city and the state both are serious about making sure that black people and other people of color enjoy basic human rights along the civil rights so long promised to them as Americans — but so long denied.
Taking down the statues of Confederate leaders is a good start. But it’s not enough. Richmond and Virginia should not just cut out the tumor. They should also promote real healing.
That starts with removing propaganda of a failed, racist and secessionist regime from Richmond’s most honored public space. And this project continues with using that same stage to tell better stories about the past of Virginia, the South, and the whole nation.
Richmond can take its place among the great cities of the globe by doing more than other places have done. Richmond can show more vision than other cities that have pulled down statues under cover of darkness and left empty plinths and columns with no plan to tell a better story.
That’s certainly the easy way to deal with the immediate crisis. But Monument Avenue offers Richmond a unique opportunity to do better.
It won’t be quick or easy to agree on new statues and raise the money to get them. As a transition, once the Confederate statues are gone, Richmond could designate the areas around the empty plinths to open-air democracy.
“The circle at Monument and Allen could be a work in progress for a while,” says my Richmond colleague Andrew Grigsby, a long-time resident of the city who has been attending protest events over the last couple weeks.
It could be a place of experimentation in public art. The pedestal could be a literal soapbox for continued demonstration (the University of Texas has its dedicated free speech plaza on the west mall). The freedom to assemble could be the theme. It’s been incredibly powerful to be there (Tues. night, Wed. night, Thurs. morning) and to see that space completely appropriated. It’s now a monument to the power of the people – to average folks showing up and speaking out.
Meanwhile, building on the experience of the Monument Avenue Commission, over a 12-18 month period, City authorities should conduct a transparent and fair public process to agree on figures for new statues. That will be hard and messy work. But as a form of citywide teach-in on real Virginia history, it will be well worth the trouble.
After a commission can agree on new statues, it won’t be cheap to build and install them. But once people across Virginia, around the United States and even across the globe see that Richmond is leading the way to accomplish something bold and hopeful, help will come.
A city that has survived much turmoil over its history, from burning by Benedict Arnold in the Revolution, to worse burning by retreating Confederates at the end of the Civil War, to the fight against Massive Resistance during the Civil Rights movement, is a resilient city. It’s a city with people, black and white, who are willing to swim against the tide of the opinion of the day to stand for high ideals.
Let Richmond shake off its reputation as capital of the Confederacy once and for all not by simply trying to forget but by committing itself to remembering something better and more powerful.
Thanks to my wife Lindsay Curren and friends Mike Shelton, Andrew Grigsby and Daniel Newcomb for reviewing this piece and suggesting historical figures to add.
— Erik Curren