The monument to Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, after 2020 racial justice protests. Photo by Robert P. Jones
(RNS) — The last Confederate monument still standing on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, the massive tribute to General Robert E. Lee, was removed on Wednesday (Sept. 8).
A 21-foot bronze sculpture mounted on a massive 40-foot pedestal, it was primarily funded and conceived by the Ladies’ Lee Monument Committee, a predecessor to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has its headquarters in Richmond to this day. The statue’s dedication on May 29, 1890, was accompanied by three days of events (including a choral performance by the Young Men’s Christian Association) that drew an estimated 100,000 people.
Beside the statue, special stands were constructed to contain hundreds of white children wearing red, white and blue who were arranged to create a living Confederate battle flag.
The title of the Richmond Times editorial that week captured how the city’s white residents understood the meaning of this new landmark: “Conquered Though Not Vanquished.” As historian Karen Cox summarized it, “This was not just a monument to the region’s most cherished hero; it was about the restoration of Confederate men’s honor.”
It was also a declaration of a war on the terrain of culture and politics as Virginia, like many Southern states, threw off the reforms of Reconstruction and set up legal and cultural systems of segregation and the suppression of voting by African Americans.
The Lee monument was the down payment by the city’s white elite on a multidecade effort to create the broad leafy outdoor corridor that would eventually be punctuated by five traffic circles, each containing a massive monument to the Confederacy.
Between 1890 and 1930, the wealthier white residents not only moved their homes but also rebuilt at least seven of their churches out along Monument Avenue in the shadow of these monuments. The architectural interplay between monuments dedicated to the Confederacy and sanctuaries dedicated to God performatively expressed the motto emblazoned on the five-story column behind the statue of Jefferson Davis: “God will vindicate.”
Over the past few years, I’ve spent several weeks in Richmond, conducting research in the archives of the UDC for my book “White Too Long” and tracking the unfolding drama as the city and its churches are attempting to extricate themselves from the Lost Cause narrative and create a new story that looks to the future, rather than the past. The juxtapositions, and contradictions, can be jarring.
When I first visited in July 2019, the city had just renamed one of its central streets — one that historically fronted the national headquarters of the UDC along with “Battle Abbey,” originally built to hold Confederate reliquary and now the Virginia Museum of History & Culture — after native son and international tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr.
As a youth, Ashe had been banned from playing tennis on Richmond’s public courts because of his race. As an adult, he dedicated his life off the court to international civil rights work, philanthropy and scholarship.
Monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Robert P. Jones
That summer, the VMHC had hung large banners of Ashe outside the building, and there were images of him on large placards along the sidewalk. Just 30 feet or so down the sidewalk in front of the UDC building, half a dozen pro-Confederate protesters had hoisted large Confederate battle flags on makeshift poles over placards that read, “Save our monuments.”
When the UDC archivist handed me her business card, it had already been updated to show their location on “Arthur Ashe Boulevard.”
Interestingly, this is not the first time that Richmond’s residents have called on Ashe to oppose Confederate forces in Richmond. In 1996, three years after his untimely death, the city placed a memorial to Ashe on Monument Avenue. The 12-foot-tall statue, resting on a 21-foot pedestal, sits on a traffic circle just beyond the last of five Confederate monuments along the venue. About 500 people attended the unveiling of the monument, with some holding up Confederate flags in protest.
Monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Robert P. Jones
When I visited in 2019, I was struck by how diminutive Ashe seemed in the context of Monument Avenue. His likeness, anchoring one end of the avenue, was roughly half the size of the Lee, Davis and Jackson monuments nearer the city center. But when I revisited this past summer, the statue of Ashe, with a book held high in his right hand and a tennis racket slightly lower in his left (a pose explicitly requested by Ashe himself to emphasize the importance of education) loomed larger.
Four of the five Confederate statues were removed by the city in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. The statue of Lee had been covered with graffiti that transformed it into an internationally recognized site of performance art for racial justice.
For the first time in 130 years, a trip down Richmond’s Monument Avenue will not entail an involuntary Lost Cause pilgrimage. Rather — and this is the surprisingly moving experience I had biking down that street this past July — the empty pedestals will stand as silent indicting witnesses to the past valorization of white supremacy by a city’s white leaders and churches.
The monument to Arthur Ashe Jr. prominently incorporates a biblical inscription from the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews on the front of its pedestal: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
I don’t know everything Ashe and his family had in mind with that selection, but today it seems fitting for the last man standing on Monument Avenue.
(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI and the author of ” White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article was originally published on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. Read more at robertpjones.substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
CeCe Winans released a new album in March called “Believe For It,” and she debuted a few songs at her first live, virtual special called “An Evening of Thanksgiving,” which aired in February.
Compassion International, a Christian ministry aimed at finding sponsors for children worldwide, has partnered with Winans for the event. She’s also a strong supporter of their work and has sponsored a few children herself. It’s a fitting partnership, given new songs are meant to encourage people, and that’s how she sees the work of Compassion.
“I get excited about partnering with organizations that are doing something that brings life, and Compassionate International does that. They make a difference, and they put a smile on kids’ faces who otherwise wouldn’t have hope. They bring hope,” says Winans. “They bring peace, food, water, clothing, and education. They give them something that will enhance their life, not just for a moment.”
I had an opportunity to chat with CeCe about her new songs, the virtual event, and her son taking on a new leadership role in their church.
You’ve had so much music success. Can you share what’s unique in the new music that’s coming out? What can fans look forward to?
It’s my first live record, and it’s music that encourages you to sing along. I think that’s something that people can look forward to. I’m doing a lot of songs that maybe you’ve heard before, maybe not, but I know that a lot of people have sung them in their churches. I wanted to create something that people and churches and everybody could sing along with. So it’s definitely a CD that’s filled with praise and celebration. Everybody needs some hope right now.
Tell us about the creative process during the making of your new album.
I’ve always determined songs by how they’ve ministered to me. I believe that if it hits my heart, it’s going to hit other people’s hearts. But the title of the record is called “Believe For It.” And this was the last song that came in when we decided we had all of our songs, but we felt something was missing. We really liked it [the album], but it seemed like we needed something else with the theme or something that will kind of, I don’t know, just put us in the frame of mind that we need to be in.
And my producers, Kyle Lee and Dwan Hill, got together, and they started writing with another young man, and they came back, and they played one song for me, and it was a good song. And I was like, that’s good, but that’s not it. And we kept going because, again, we had a strong record already, but we all kind of agreed that we needed something else. Another part of the puzzle was missing. And then they came with the song, Believe For It. And when I heard it — that’s it! That’s it! We all agreed, and I even did some writing on it to finish it up. But it is just the message of hope that everyone needs to hear. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. You need to brush yourself off, brush those dreams off and start to believe again.
You’re so passionate about the work of Compassion International. Have you ever sponsored a child?
I’ve been sponsoring kids for years. And you go into this thinking you’re going to be a blessing to them, and you WILL be a blessing to them, but it ends up coming back to your life in so many ways. I know my kids are blessed.
Giving blesses your life. When I went to visit some of these kids years ago, and I saw the level of poverty that they lived in, first of all, my heart was just broken. I mean, they walk miles and miles for dirty water, contaminated water. I’m talking 10 miles.
And then you see where they live. And the first thing you realize is, “What am I complaining about? Why do I have to complain about anything?” They had this joy on their faces. And so when I came home years ago, I told my kids, “Oh no, no, no. We are going to live our lives differently.” And they were probably looking at me like, “Mom, what are you talking about?” You have to live a whole different way. Because of that, I know I’ve been blessed. I get excited about compassionlive.com. I pray that everybody will tune in, but not just tuning in, go and sponsor a child because even coming out of 2020, people who are brokenhearted, people who have lost their job, people who need major blessings in their lives, I’m telling you the way to break through is to give.
I understand your son is taking on more of a leadership role in your church, Nashville Life Church in Nashville, TN. What does that mean to you personally and to your family?
My husband and I started this church eight years ago, and it was birthed really through my son and his friends. When we started, it was all millennials, and our church is filled with millennials. And then my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Really, God? You want us to pastor?” We’re like, “Okay, here we go.” But my son started with all of his friends, and God just did work in my son’s heart. And he started witnessing and getting people to feel with the Holy Spirit. Leading people, should I say, to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
It started in my home with 35 people. And the Lord told my husband when we started eight years ago that my son would pastor. So we were the founding pastors, and my son has been pastoring along with us all of these years. The transition that we made three weeks ago is him being lead pastor, and now we’re the founding pastors. It’s just exciting because even within those three weeks, it’s like growth is happening the way he’s anointed to do it. And my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, thank God. We at least carried it for eight years.” We didn’t make it work. We knew that we were in the will of God doing what we did, but we knew it was always about him and this generation.
It’s not like we’re retiring, but we are definitely in the background encouraging, pushing him, and just covering him. It’s exciting to see and not only him, but all the young people, our staff, are taking it over, and they’re the Joshua generation. It’s time.