Just say no
1/6/2022, 6 p.m.
Just because someone gives you something doesn’t mean it’s worth having.
Latest prime examples: The state-owned 12-ton, 21-foot bronze statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue and several other city-owned rebel monuments that were taken down last year, including those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. J.E.B Stuart and Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury, also from Monument Avenue.
Gov. Ralph S. Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney announced last week a plan to gift this collection of Confederate flotsam and jetsam to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. The small, privately run museum in Jackson Ward is to work with The Valentine, another small, privately run museum in Downtown that focuses on Richmond history, to figure out what to do with these behemoths.
According to the proposed arrangement, which must be approved by Richmond City Council, the public will have a voice in what happens to the statues.
Some people lauded this move on social media. They called it “poetic justice” by having the museum and descendants of those enslaved for centuries by white oppressors—and later by the traitors who led the Southern rebellion against the United States to keep Black people in bondage—to be overseers of the fate of the statues erected by white supremacists and their descendants to honor the Lost Cause and to remind Black people of their continued inferior status in the Southern social order.
“Symbols matter, and for too long, Virginia’s most prominent symbols celebrated our country’s tragic division and the side that fought to keep alive the institution of slavery by any means possible,” Gov. Northam stated in a news release announcing the gift. “Now it will be up to our thoughtful museums, informed by the people of Virginia, to determine the future of these artifacts, including the base of the Lee Monument which has taken on special significance as protest art.”
The big question: Why would the Black History Museum — and Black people, generally — want anything to do with these monuments?
For centuries, we have had to take care of white people and all their “stuff” — their homes, their kitchens, their laundry, their children, their crops, their livestock, their businesses — first on plantations and later as “hired” workers. Why now do we want to be saddled with the burden of taking care of their statues?
Why should the Black History Museum divert its time, attention and resources to deal with these remnants of hate?
To this point, the state and city have been responsible for the statues’ storage, maintenance and security. What will happen when the statues suddenly belong to the Black History Museum? Will the museum — not quite flush with cash — be expected to foot those bills?
How many of the museum’s current faithful donors would be willing to continue giving knowing their money will be spent to properly safeguard this new Confederate cache whose value the city estimates at $12 million?
We believe many will turn to directed giving, stipulating that their donations be targeted to specific areas and not to the support or upkeep of the Confederate statues.
For years, we, at the Free Press, urged that the symbols of white supremacy and racial oppression on Monument Avenue be stricken from the city’s landscape. And we are glad they now have been taken down. We recommended in the past that they be given or sold to the National Park Service’s Civil War battlefields or other related historic sites, such as birthplaces or Civil War museums or cemeteries, as contextual artifacts.
Since their removal in mid-2020, the statues have become a sort of albatross around the neck of the City of Richmond, which has grappled with what to do with them. In late 2020, the city received nearly two dozen bids from 17 organizations and five private individuals who expressed interest in acquiring the statues. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia was not among them. Most of the bids, which came from as far away as California, asked for the statues for free.
A Los Angeles museum wanted them for up to two years for an exhibit, the Free Press reported in November 2020, while a Connecticut art studio proposed the statues be broken up and the pieces sold as a fundraiser for Richmond Public Schools and charitable groups in the city.
Dealing with COVID-19 and other pressing issues right now, the statues haven’t been a priority for the city and the Stoney administration, which spent $1.8 million to take them down. And the issue of the Lee statue and pedestal has been a political hot potato for Gov. Northam’s administration, which doesn’t want to leave the question of what to do with them to the incoming Republican administration of Gov.-elect Glenn A. Youngkin, who may very well decide to put the Lee statue back up.
However, we believe the gift of the statues is a weight that shouldn’t fall on the Black History Museum, despite the comments from Marland Buckner, the museum’s interim executive director.
“Our institution takes very seriously the responsibility to manage these objects in ways that ensure their origins and purpose are never forgotten ...,” Mr. Buckner stated. “We believe with this responsibility also comes opportunity – opportunities to deepen our understanding of an essential element of the American story: the expansion of freedom.
“We hope this process will elevate public dialogue about our shared history ...”
While the museum is a venerable institution representing the history of Black people in Richmond and throughout the Commonwealth, the museum certainly would want to weigh in on what should happen to the Confederate artifacts. But owning them and being the entity responsible for them is like giving a poison apple to a starving man. That story doesn’t end well.
At the risk of sounding flip, we suggest the Black History Museum hold a rummage sale or auction to get rid of these statues once and for all—to appropriate relocation sites—and then use the proceeds to further its own mission of telling the story of Black people, their lives, history and accomplish- ments, even in the face of centuries of oppression.
Or the museum could just say no and turn down these “gifts.”