Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause

A conversation on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, July, 2021

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the intersection of North Davis and Monument Avenue in the city of Richmond, Virginia. We’re standing in front of an arcing colonnade, and at its center is a large column, and just before that, a pedestal that once supported a bronze sculpture of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

Dr. Sarah Beetham: [0:25] We are here in late July of 2021, at this transitional moment where we’re left wondering what is going to happen in Richmond. The Robert E. Lee statue still stands, but the other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have all been removed and carted away.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] And so we have a series of pedestals with no sculptures on top of them, and the pedestals and the architectural forms that remain bear traces of the public uprising of last summer.

Dr. Beetham: [0:52] Last summer was the summer of 2020. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. An uprising took place over another pandemic, which was the state violence directed at people of color, especially African Americans, which started with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] Let’s begin with an older history, the history of this city as the state capital of Virginia, a state that was central to the American Revolution. In fact, many of the founding fathers hailed from this state. This city became the state capital, and then became the capital of the Confederacy.

Dr. Beetham: [1:25] This is where Jefferson Davis lived as president of the Confederacy. It was also one of the prizes over which the eastern theater of the Civil War was fought.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] But we’re standing on a leafy boulevard of a residential neighborhood, surrounded by prosperous homes. Other than the monuments at the center of this avenue, there is no overt expression of the Civil War.

Dr. Beetham: [1:45] In fact, this Monument Avenue did not even exist during the Civil War. The very first statue placed on Monument Avenue, which was the statue to Robert E. Lee, didn’t go up until 1890 and was placed in an area that was largely uninhabited as something of a real estate speculation, hoping that it could be the beginning of a grand new boulevard and expansion of the city westward.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] The notion of having a broad boulevard with a central green island is part of what is referred to as the City Beautiful movement. This notion of city planning came out of ideas that had been developed during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a temporary architecture there that was referred to as the White City.

Dr. Beetham: [2:26] In some ways, the Richmond Monument Avenue, at least until recently, was one of the most complete examples of the City Beautiful movement. When the first monuments were placed, they weren’t cutting a boulevard into an existing city, but planning an entire new city around it, and this whole area is created in order to honor these Confederate heroes.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] I think for many people that may be the confusing issue. These were generals who had lost the Civil War, they were defeated. There was a great sense of humiliation in the South, and yet here they are being placed up on pedestals as if they had been the victors.

Dr. Beetham: [3:01] In the years immediately following the Civil War, there was a time of real rebirth and excitement for African Americans in the United States. The passing of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, the 14th Amendment allowing for all men to become citizens, and the 15th Amendment allowing for the right to vote for all men, were a real revolution.

[3:19] But what happened in the decades following was a chipping away of all of those rights and protections through white supremacist violence. It was only after that process had been largely completed and that wonderful second revolution of Reconstruction had been fully defeated in itself that these monuments began to appear. So, the fact that these look like victory monuments actually makes a lot of sense.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] This period, when the United States enforced equality in the South, is known as Reconstruction. The period following, when these protections are dismantled, is often referred to as the Jim Crow era. These monuments are then a testament to the resurgent power of Southern whites during this Jim Crow era.

Dr. Beetham: [4:01] I think everyone knew exactly what they meant. The editor of the “Richmond Planet,” John Mitchell, wrote editorial after editorial decrying the fact that this was happening.

[4:09] That he couldn’t believe that he was seeing Confederate flags flying on the streets of Richmond again. Vowing that while the Black man is here putting these monuments up, someday he’s going to be here to take them down.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] That’s what we witnessed just this past year. But I think perhaps it’s too easy to exonerate the North in this narrative. The North allowed for the dismantling of Reconstruction. It turned a blind eye to the resurgence of white supremacy.

Dr. Beetham: [4:34] This street, Monument Avenue, is the epicenter of Confederate memory and of the great historical lie that’s known as the Lost Cause, which was an attempt that began almost immediately after the war to try to hide the fact that slavery was really the issue that caused the war, and to try to recast the Confederate cause as a simple attempt to defend the Southern homeland.

Dr. Zucker: [4:55] Faith in the Lost Cause is still with us, and was on public display as recently as the 1990s, when there was an effort to add one new sculpture to the avenue. The sculpture of Arthur Ashe, an extraordinarily accomplished tennis player, civil rights leader, and native of this city.

Dr. Beetham: [5:14] Arthur Ashe is the final statue on Monument Avenue and now one of the only ones remaining. His statue faces away from the other monuments, looking north while the rest of them are looking south.

[5:24] At the time that this statue was put up in the 1990s, there was debate on both sides over whether or not he should be here. There were many people who felt that this avenue belongs to the Confederacy, and that the presence of an African American man there was an affront to all of these white supremacist leaders.

[5:40] At the same time, there were also members of the Black community who did not want to see Arthur Ashe here. Who didn’t feel that someone who was a civil rights activist and who had also been oppressed growing up in Richmond would want to be on the street with these Confederate leaders.

[5:54] There are hundreds of Confederate monuments remaining in Southern cities. Certainly, many of them have come down in the last few years, but in a lot of ways, the fact that Monument Avenue is falling is a symbolic final crumbling of this Lost Cause narrative. It’s hard to even state how significant it is to see these particular statues removed from their pedestals.

[6:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Sarah Beetham and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Monument Avenue and the Lost Cause," in Smarthistory, September 10, 2021, accessed July 20, 2024,