Statues of Confederate Generals Have Come Down. What Should Take Their Place?
The Mellon Foundation has launched a $250 million nationwide effort to rethink public art and memorials. The debates over it are just starting.
After protesters toppled Jefferson Davis from his perch on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a thoroughfare once dedicated to southern Civil War leaders, the statue of the president of the Confederacy found temporary residence last year in a nearby museum dedicated to its sculptor, Edward Valentine.
At the Valentine Museum, Davis was no longer cradled within an arc of Doric columns. Nor was he accompanied by another Valentine piece, a bronze statue called Vindicatrix, meant to convey the unblemished virtues of Southern womanhood. Instead, the statue was displayed as it was found after the
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After protesters toppled Jefferson Davis from his perch on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the statue of the Confederate president found temporary residence in a nearby museum dedicated to its sculptor, Edward Valentine.
At the Valentine Museum, Davis was no longer placed within an arc of Doric columns. Nor was he accompanied by another Valentine piece, a bronze statue called Vindicatrix, meant to convey the unblemished virtues of Southern womanhood. Instead, the statue was displayed as it was found after the June 11, 2020 knockdown: lying in submission, face painted black, body splashed pink, with a toilet paper noose around his neck.
For several years preceding the 2020 protests set off by the murder of George Floyd, the Valentine Museum had struggled with how to commemorate and display the work of its namesake, a man dedicated to the Lost Cause, the white supremacist ideology that fostered racial violence and reversed the tenets of Reconstruction.
That struggle has only gained urgency in recent years. Since protesters took to the streets in 2020, hundreds of historical monuments and museums have been the subject of fierce controversy about what to keep in public view, what to archive, and what to junk altogether. The ongoing debate has prompted the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities — to launch a $250 million nationwide effort to rethink how American history is told in public art and memorials. Called the Monuments Project, the grant-making program is the signature effort of Mellon President Elizabeth Alexander’s broader push to make racial justice a funding priority since 2018.
A premise behind the Mellon project is that students learn both from their physical environment and in the classroom. As it now stands, Alexander says, the collection of public art that depicts the heroes and heroines of American history is woefully incomplete. City squares and plazas have been largely absent of people of color, instead saved for white explorers, generals, and politicians, reinforcing a theme of white dominance in the country’s history, Alexander says.
“Let’s complicate that story with the stories of slavery and resistance. Let’s complicate that with the truth,” she says. “There’s not one narrative. There are many narratives.”
Since 2021, the Mellon Foundation has awarded nearly $2 million to the Valentine Museum to meet its revisionist challenge. The museum has since hired a new historian and archivist and soon will open an exhibit building on the display of the vandalized Davis. The plan is to reinterpret Valentine and his work in a broader historical context — one that doesn’t seek to venerate Confederate heroes but instead looks at the origins of the racist ideology that fueled the creation of his statues.
The goal, says Bill Martin, the museum’s executive director, is to learn how lies that are “often told” become accepted as the truth.
“We’ll take a deep dive into how we construct these myths,” he says.
The Mellon commitment is the largest of several public history efforts made over the past several years. Others include the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which was started in 2018 with a goal of raising $25 million in five years to preserve historic sites. The fund blew past that goal, drawing $91 million from individual donors like MacKenzie Scott and more than a dozen national grant makers including the Ford, JPB, and Open Society foundations.
In the months that followed George Floyd’s murder, there was a burst of activity as cities removed dozens of Civil War statues.
“Things have slowed down, but conversations are continuing about what to do with these outdated, problematic, and unrepresentative monuments,” says Kirk Savage, an art professor specializing in public art and memory studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
People who long held onto the old status quo — that the statues were a symbol of some greater glory — recognize that view isn’t viable anymore, Savage says. But figuring out what to do next is more challenging. Mellon’s Monuments Project, he says, has been a “game-changer” in propelling that conversation forward.
But discussions over who to memorialize, and what monuments mean, can get very heated. Mellon’s support of rethinking historical markers and installations in public spaces comes as debate roils over how history is taught in schools. Some, like Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, have sought to remove teaching about race that is “inherently divisive.” Other states, like Florida, have revamped their entire secondary-school curriculum to include lessons on how Black people benefited from slavery.
Monuments should be erected that advance a counter-narrative to the Civil War statues by paying tribute to important Black figures, says Catesby Leigh, a senior fellow at the Common Sense Society, an international conservative network. But in Leigh’s view, defacing the old statues obliterated one of the most important urban venues for memorial art in the world.
Before “left-wing” agitators wrecked the statues, Leigh says, Richmonders and visitors strolled under them, ambivalent about what they represented to the people who installed them.
“They didn’t have ideological currency. They were not threatening anybody,” he says, adding that “the destruction of Monument Avenue’s statuary heritage was an absolute cultural catastrophe that will do absolutely nothing for Black people in Richmond.”
Alexander sees the statues differently.
“They stand for the Lost Cause,” she says. “They stand for white supremacy.”
For decades after they were erected, she says, the figures in the memorials kept an intimidating watch over the city’s Black residents, even though they were presented as heroes.
Unearthing Richmond’s History
This summer, the Mellon Foundation expanded the Monuments Project to nine cities that will receive a total of $25 million.
Some of the projects, like the $2 million Mellon gave to the city of Columbus, Ohio, are similar to the Valentine grant in that they address how to treat iconic public art deemed racist. City leaders will use the grant to try to reach public consensus on what to do with a former mainstay of the city’s public art — a statue of Christopher Columbus that was taken down three years ago.
Other Monuments Project grants have gone toward celebrating people whose lives had been largely erased in the popular telling of history.
One of them, Abraham Peyton Skipwith, was the first known Black homeowner in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. A contemporary of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Skipwith was a leader in what was known as the “Black Harlem” or “Black Wall Street” section of the city.
Skipwith’s house, along with the homes of many other Black residents of Jackson Ward, was gutted and removed in the 1950s to make way for a highway that ran through the neighborhood. The family living there was forced to leave, and the two-story cottage was hauled to nearby land that was once a plantation owned by James Seddon, a Confederate war secretary.
Sesha Joi Moon and her sister, Enjoli Moon, whose family lived in Jackson Ward for generations, saw the Confederate memorials coming down during the 2020 protests and felt Skipwith’s time had come. Sesha Joi is the director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the U.S. House of Representatives, and Enjoli is an assistant curator at the Virginia Commonwealth University Institute of Contemporary Art.
“We recognized that there was a real opportunity to create new memorials and monuments to those who were more representative of the full fabric of the city,” Sesha Joi says. “He defied all the narratives that we hear about what it meant to be Black in the 1700s. He should be a household name.”
The Moon sisters have used $1.5 million from Mellon to purchase land in Jackson Ward to re-create Skipwith’s house. Unlike most Black people at the time, Skipwith left an extensive will, and descriptions of the house interior and his possessions were well-documented.
In addition to the Skipwith home reconstruction, the Moons are planning to provide a community and events space for local groups, academic researchers, and people in and outside the ward to learn about the area’s history.
“There are a lot of local residents who we hope can help to find their own particular truth through this work,” Sesha Joi says.
With the Mellon grant, and money from the grant maker If, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, and from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Moons are nearly halfway to their goal of raising $5.6 million.
By unearthing a piece of buried history, the Moon sisters are adding to the American experience, says Justin Garrett Moore, director of Mellon’s Humanities in Place program.
“There is a wide range of voices, histories, experiences, people, contexts that have to be visible so that we can have an honest dialog about who we are and want to be as a society,” he says. “There’s learning that happens outside of K-12 compulsory education or even in the university system.”
Reviving Williamsburg’s Bray School
Less than an hour away from Richmond is one of the nation’s best-known historical sites: Williamsburg. The city, established before 1700, was turned into a major historical preservation and tourist site in the 1920s with gifts from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Mellon’s Alexander remembers visiting Williamsburg, like millions of others, as a grade-school student. Alexander, who went on to serve as chair of the Yale University African American Studies Department, didn’t have an awareness at the time of the history that wasn’t being presented at Williamsburg — she was only 8 years old.
One of Mellon’s grants, $5 million to move the Bray School to Williamsburg, will help build awareness of previously unacknowledged history for generations to come. The school is the oldest surviving structure in the nation dedicated to educating Black students.
Between 1760 and 1774, more than 300 free and enslaved Black children were educated at the school, which was established by an English charity that was founded by the clergyman and abolitionist Thomas Bray. For years, the Bray School was hidden from sight within another building on the campus of William & Mary College.
“There it was, all this time,” Alexander says.
Monuments and sites like Williamsburg should showcase the successes of Black Americans who succeeded despite the obstacles they faced, and stress the country’s shared virtues and values, says Jonathan Butcher, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Butcher says viewing history through a racial justice lens provides too narrow a view. Defining America’s history, especially before the Civil War, by stressing slavery isn’t appropriate for educating children, or even adults, he says.
“It obviously has to have a key place in the retelling, but it should not be the focus of an entire grant, or an entire project,” he says.
Alexander counters that Americans can “embrace complexity” about the country’s past and that public monuments should focus on reflecting something closer to the truth.
“Human beings are not simple-minded, so we shouldn’t treat them like they are,” she says. “Human beings can understand that more than one thing is true at the same time.”
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. See more about the Chronicle, the grant, how our foundation-supported journalism works, and our gift-acceptance policy.