A black mayor who leads the former capital of the Confederacy sees both sides of the monument debate

As memorials toppled across the country, the African American mayor of the former capital of the Confederacy defended his city’s own.

Removal doesn't do “anything for telling the actual truth,” Levar Stoney said.

That was Monday.

Two days later, the Richmond mayor said Confederate monuments had become a “rallying point for division and intolerance” and should be removed.

Angry residents on both sides of the monument debate hit back at the mayor, who had attempted to stake a middle ground in the impassioned discussions over memorials in a city where Confederate history is a point of pride for many and worth millions in tourist dollars.

But as Stoney’s experience shows, it’s hard to find a middle ground in the city where President Jefferson Davis once presided over a rebel government.

Richmond today is a liberal, majority-black city in conservative southern Virginia, and residents have agonized all summer over the long-simmering monument issue. Now, the debate has come to a boil.

“This is probably the worst it has been,” said Ora Lomax, an 85-year-old Richmond resident long involved with its chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “You see the anger over it everywhere.”

Unlike many places, where Confederate monuments can go unnoticed in front of government buildings or tucked away in city parks, the controversy in Richmond centers on one of the city’s most valuable and central pieces of real estate.

Monument Avenue, displayed on postcards and circled on tourist maps, has stood for more than a century as perhaps the grandest ode to the Confederacy in the nation. A tree-lined, stately 1.5-mile historic stretch in the Virginia capital, the avenue is surrounded by mansions, statues of Civil War generals, and culminates with a bronze statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee on a horse that juts 60 feet upward from a small park.

Tourists flock to the city for its Civil War sites, and often stop by the avenue for selfies in front of Lee, Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Davis. Civil War heritage groups, dressed in 19th century regalia, regularly gather on the street to celebrate Confederate History Month in April. Every spring, the street is the site of Easter on Parade, a festival where residents stroll dressed up in bright Easter bonnets.

But as the city grows, boosted by young liberals from outside the South who have decided to call it home for its cheaper housing and booming arts and cultural scenes, questions have also grown about the memorials. An increasingly organized African American community has also raised its voice.

In recent years, residents have protested against a popular 10-kilometer race passing by the statues on its route, and protesters spray-painted graffiti on the Lee sculpture with the words “Black lives matter” after the deadly shooting of black church members in Charleston, S.C., in 2015.

In June, Stoney created a 10-person commission to find a solution to the monument debate. He named historians, academics and community leaders, including several African Americans, to the group. Stoney told them to find ways to add “context” to the avenue.

Context, he and others explained, could include new statues to honor black figures, like one that was added on the western end of the avenue in 1996 of hometown tennis hero Arthur Ashe. It could also include additional plaques to more explicitly condemn the Confederate cause.

But the mayor left the option to remove statues off the table.

At the commission’s first public meeting, held on Aug. 9, 500 people packed a room at the Virginia Historical Society to yell complaints, accusing the panel of not representing their views for and against the monuments.

The mayor, who said during his campaign last year that he would “not shed a tear” if monuments came down, did not commit to pushing for their removal. Then came the violence in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman died when a car plowed into protesters demonstrating against a far-right rally. That left him thinking of “how my grandmother would feel.” She was born in 1923 in South Carolina.

Some members of his commission have publicly disagreed with the mayor.

“No, the statues should not come down,” said commission member Christy Coleman, the chief executive of the Civil War Museum in Richmond.

“Everything is a teachable moment, even things we don’t like,” said Coleman, who is black and pointed to the existence of concentration camps as educational and remembrance sites to back up her view.

The local NAACP chapter, which is not on the commission, took a different view.

“This is about slavery. It’s clear and evident and it’s wrong,” said James Miner, the chapter president, whose group voted Thursday to support removal of all Confederate monuments after taking no position for months. “Not everyone who supports them is racist. But some are, and we need to more forward in this century.”

As Richmond residents await the fate of Monument Avenue, the stretch continues to draw visitors — and security. After a pro-monument Confederate history group this week called off plans for a September rally in front of the Lee memorial, the Virginia governor, who believes monuments should come down, banned all rallies by the statue.

Police have assigned a patrol car to the Lee monument for 24-hour monitoring since vandalism hit statues in Baltimore, Atlanta and elsewhere this week. In Durham, N.C., a woman was charged with crimes for helping topple a monument of a Confederate soldier in front of a courthouse.

On Thursday night, Richmond resident Tracy Kneebush made his first visit to the avenue with his wife, Venus, after hearing about the controversy on the news. They stood across from the Lee monument, snapping photos.

“There was nothing good about slavery,” Kneebush said. A white Republican who voted for President Trump, he said he saw attacks on monuments as less about speaking out against hatred and more about people who were angry at the president for blaming “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville — a blame Kneebush also assigned.

“Taking down these statues isn’t going to change the past,” he said. “Everyone suffered. Not everyone complains.”

Marty Woods, another white Richmond resident, had stopped at the same spot and told Kneebush he agreed on blaming both sides for Charlottesville. The sentiment against the monuments was misguided, he said.

He said slavery was wrong, but he also believed it wasn’t “that bad,” adding that worse treatment was given to indentured servants like his ancestors who immigrated from Eastern Europe and Russia. Slaves, he said, “had value” among their owners, while other workers did not.

Just as Trump had asked this week, Woods wondered whether statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would come down next.

“I wanted to come by before I lost my chance,” said Woods, 58.

That chance may not be lost some time.

A Virginia state law protects war monuments, which has led Confederate heritage groups to sue in Charlottesville and elsewhere over removal plans. In the case of Richmond's Lee memorial, it stands on state — not city — property, and the Legislature would need to decide its fate.

Still, Stoney said he believed the city had the authority to take most statues down. He also saw a future — and public sentiments — increasingly removed from Richmond’s past.

“We’re inclusive, welcoming, open-minded,” he said of of the city. “I know Richmond. Those statues are not Richmond any longer.”

jaweed.kaleem@latimes.com

Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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