Richmond, Va., Struggles With Race

Thursday, July 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A look at the larger-than-life likeness of Robert E. Lee on the James River floodwall wiped the smile off Terri Smith's face.

``A lot of African-Americans' feelings were hurt when they voted to let that mural go up,'' the 31-year-old black woman said with a frown.

One hundred thirty-five years after the capital of the Confederacy fell, skirmishes are still being fought in Richmond over the meaning and symbols of the Civil War.

The picture of Lee is among dozens of images from Richmond's past on huge tapestries along a wall in a historical part of this city of 192,000 people, 58 percent of them black. The murals also contain images of black historical figures, including the leader of a slave revolt.

When Lee's portrait went up last year, some black leaders demanded its removal. The Sons of Confederate Veterans rushed to Lee's defense, as did white supremacist David Duke. The mural was defaced, then restored.

Three years earlier, there was a furor over a statue erected of Richmond-born tennis star Arthur Ashe — the only black man ever to win Wimbledon — along Monument Avenue, a boulevard in a white neighborhood bristling with statues of Confederate Gens. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis.

Some white Southerners say they are simply saluting the valor with which their ancestors fought.

``We're just trying to honor our heritage,'' said Brag Bowling, a lieutenant commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He said the NAACP is judging leaders from the 1860s by 21st century conventions, ``and by those standards, nobody who lived before 1960 can measure up.''

But some black leaders say they cannot separate out the fact that the heroes of the Confederacy fought in defense of a slave government.

``We have enough statues, school names, Confederate museums, enough stuff for the Confederacy. What we are saying is don't be using our tax dollars for our disrespect,'' said Salim Khalfani, executive director of the NAACP in Virginia.

Other states and communities have gone through similar things. South Carolina was convulsed for months by protests over the Confederate flag. And Texas recently removed two plaques bearing Confederate symbols from the state Supreme Court building.

But in Richmond — with its many Civil War statues, monuments, markers, museums and street names — the issue smolders constantly.

``Our particular legacy causes us some real problems — additional difficulties that other communities do not have,'' said Mayor Timothy Kaine, who is white. ``In a lot of ways, the Civil War has been an albatross around our neck.''

The problem, some say, is the way many white Southerners romanticize the ``Lost Cause,'' turning it into something out of ``Gone With the Wind.''

``A lot of people don't want to acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause. One reason a lot of people are dishonest about their past is guilt,'' the mayor said. ``Everyone knows slavery was evil, but nobody wants to think that their ancestors weren't noble people.''

Susan Glisson, interim director of the Institution for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, said: ``It is so much easier if you're white to imagine some grand plantation home in which you didn't have to work and, when it was attacked, you valiantly defend it on some battlefield far away.''

For all the division Richmond's past provokes, it was here that a grandson of slaves, L. Douglas Wilder, rose to power as the nation's only elected black governor. In 1990, he was sworn in outside the state Capitol where the Confederate Congress met.

``It's not the easiest discussion you can have about race,'' said Wilder, now a college lecturer, businessman and host of a radio talk show. ``We need to have more factual discussion, not a matter of superiority — who was greater, who did this, who invented that.''

He added: ``People don't want to talk about the cargo holds of slave ships where Africans were forced to sit cramped in small cubicles for up to three months at a time.''

Richmond for generations was a center of the slave trade. Ships packed tight with men and women stolen from Africa unloaded at Richmond, and as many as 500,000 were then sent in chains to plantations across the South.

Racial discord over the past is not necessarily a bad thing, said Cindy Hahamovitch, a professor of history at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

``It has revealed to many people just how sensitive those issues are and how hurtful that is for African-Americans in this country,'' she said. ``I hear people say, `Slavery's been gone for 150 years, why don't they get over it?' Well, efforts to make African-Americans second-class citizens lasted well into the lifetime of my parents, and the vestiges of discrimination are still with us.''

Richmond is changing. In February, two city bridges named for Confederate Gens. Stuart and Jackson were renamed in honor of two Richmond civil rights pioneers. And there are plans for a memorial to the Africans for whom Richmond was a gateway into bondage.

``Something like this has the capacity to be very healing,'' said the NAACP's Khalfani.

Downtown is also attracting a generation of well-educated young professionals — white and black — who have grown up in a desegregated society.

``In this particular city, the influx of outsiders is a good thing,'' said Burt Pinnock, a 36-year-old black architect. ``They're bringing in new attitudes, new ideas.''

As for the Lee mural, Pinnock looked at it and shrugged.

``It doesn't speak to me at all. I choose to ignore it,'' he said. He added: ``It's a generational thing. You have to let it run its course. It may take another 100 years, but it will.''


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