The 'capital of the Confederacy' is bracing itself for the next battle over Confederate monuments

  • A rally in support of Confederate monuments is planned in Richmond, Virginia on Sept. 16, and authorities are trying to ensure it doesn't lead to the kind of violence that took place during a white-supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville last month.
  • Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and its monuments are massive and include some of the oldest in the US.
  • Mayor Levar Stoney ordered a city commission to consider removing the monuments after one woman was killed during protests in Charlottesville. He said  he would not allow the city 'to be threatened by white supremacists and neo-Nazi thugs.'

RICHMOND, Virginia — Richmond is poised to become the next battleground in the contentious debate over Confederate monuments in the US.

The former capital of the Confederacy is home to some of the nation's largest and oldest monuments memorializing Confederate leaders, including Civil War Gens. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson; Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis; and Confederate naval Cmdr. Matthew Fontaine Maury.

The towering bronze-and-stone statues, some of which stand more than 60 feet tall, are all clustered along a 2-mile stretch of Richmond's tree-lined Monument Avenue, a wide four-lane boulevard that cuts through the city's center.

The National Park Service describes the road as "the nation’s only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to the present day."

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Controversy surrounding Confederate memorials
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Controversy surrounding Confederate memorials
A monument to former U.S. Vice President and Confederate General John Cabell Breckinridge stands outside the Old Courthouse in Lexington, Ky., U.S., August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
A monument to Confederate General John Hunt Morgan stands encased in a protective scaffolding because of local construction, outside the Historic Lexington Courthouse in Lexington, Ky., U.S., August 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
A municipal worker attempts to remove paint from a monument dedicated to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman that was vandalized late Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Municipal workers attempt to remove paint from a monument dedicated to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman that was vandalized late Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Protesters gather below a monument dedicated to Confederate Major John B. Castleman while demanding that it be removed from the public square in Louisville, Ky., US, August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
A plaque dedicated to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman is seen after it was vandalized late Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Municipal workers attempt to remove paint from a monument dedicated to Confederate soldier John B. Castleman that was vandalized late Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
White supremacists carry a shield and Confederate flag as they arrive at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A member of a white supremacists militia stands near a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 13: Police stand watch near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the center of Emancipation Park the day after the Unite the Right rally devolved into violence August 13, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue and change the name of the space from Lee Park to Emancipation Park, sparking protests from white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and members of the 'alt-right.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 13: Police stand watch near the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the center of Emancipation Park the day after the Unite the Right rally devolved into violence August 13, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue and change the name of the space from Lee Park to Emancipation Park, sparking protests from white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and members of the 'alt-right.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 12: White nationalists, neo-Nazis, the KKK and members of the 'alt-right' attempt to organize inside Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. After clashes with anti-facist protesters and police the rally was declared an unlawful gathering and people were forced out of Lee Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ANNAPOLIS, MD - AUGUST 16: Two women take pictures in front of the statue of US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney that sits in front of the Maryland State House, on August 16, 2017 in Annapolis, Maryland. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has called for the removal of the statue. Taney was the author of the Dred Scott decision. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY-AUGUST 14: A monument to John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate General during the Civil War, stands near the old Historic Lexington Courthouse August 14, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. The Mayor of Lexington, Jim Gray, announced he has vowed to remove the statue, along with a statue of John C. Breckinridge which also stands at the courthouse, following the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Gray tweeted, 'We cannot let them define our future.' (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
DEMOPOLIS, AL - JUNE 14: The marble statue of a Rebel soldier was unceremoniously toppled from the granite pedestal where he had presided since 1910, on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, in Demopolis, AL. About 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 16, 2016, an on-duty patrol car with the Demopolis, Ala., Police Department proceeded north on North Main Avenue to the intersection of West Capitol Street, where it crashed into the citys Confederate memorial. The impact of the Dodge Charger broke the statue off at the shins. Undamaged was the inscription on the base: Our Confederate Dead. (photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, UNITED STATES - APRIL 3. The Jefferson Davis statue stands across the street from First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans, on April 3, 2016. It is one of several confederate statues in the city. (Photo by Ben Depp for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 04: New Orleans police officers stand guard at the Jefferson Davis monument on May 4, 2017 in New Orleans, Loiusiana. The Louisiana House committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs voted Wednesday to advance House Bill 71 that would forbid the removal of Confederate monuments in Louisiana as the City Council in New Orleans tries to move three statues of Confederate luminaries from public spaces and into museums. Protests that have at times turned violent have erupted at the site of the Jefferson Davis Monument after the Battle at Liberty Place monument was taken down in the middle of the night on April 24. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A 1933 statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis is removed from University of Texas' South Mall Sunday after UT President Gregory Fenves cleared it to be placed in a campus museum along with a companion statue of President Woodrow Wilson. Recent racially-motivated shootings in the U.S. have called for reexamining some cultural icons of the Confederate South. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
Attorney Kirk Lyons disagrees as a 1933 statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis is removed from University of Texas' South Mall Sunday after UT President Gregory Fenves cleared it to be placed in a campus museum along with a companion statue of President Woodrow Wilson. Recent racially-motivated shootings in the U.S. have called for reexamining some cultural icons of the Confederate South. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
ROCKVILLE, MD -May 5, 2016: A life-size bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stands in a grove outside the courthouse on May 5, 2016 in Rockville, MD.(Photo by Eric Kruszewski/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A 1933 statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis is removed from University of Texas' South Mall Sunday after UT President Gregory Fenves cleared it to be placed in a campus museum along with a companion statue of President Woodrow Wilson. Recent racially-motivated shootings in the U.S. have called for reexamining some cultural icons of the Confederate South. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)
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A Richmond city commission has been debating the fate of the statues on Monument Avenue for months. In August, after a white supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville left one woman dead, Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the commission to look at removing the statues — an option that had been off the table.

"Let me be clear: We will not tolerate allowing these statues and their history to be used as a pretext for hate and violence or to allow our city to be threatened by white supremacists and neo-Nazi thugs," Stoney said.

Now, a rally in support of the monument is being organized for Sept. 16 by a small group based in Tennessee. The group's "primary focus appears to be selling Confederate-themed T-shirts and other paraphernalia," and it lacks the support of Virginia's most well-established Confederate heritage group, the Richmond Times Dispatch's Ned Oliver reports. 

Still, counter-protests are also planned and the city is taking no chances.

"We do not want what happened in Charlottesville to happen in Richmond," the city's Police Chief Alfred Dunham wrote in a letter to residents this week, Oliver reported. Officials plan to block weapons, though it isn't clear if Virginia's open carry laws would permit them to ban guns. 

Cities and towns across the US are tearing down statues amid heated and sometimes violent protests against what critics say they celebrate: slavery and Jim Crow-era oppression.

The deadly rally in Charlottesville was organized to protest the city's plan to remove a statue of Lee. A group of students in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands immediately after that rally and knocked a Confederate monument to the ground in front of the old Durham County Courthouse where it had stood for more than a century. The following night, the city of Baltimore surreptitiously removed several Confederate monuments to avoid similar protests there.

But in Richmond, a city that clings tightly to its rich history, government leaders — including Stoney until Wednesday — have tried to keep the hulking Civil War memorials standing on Monument Avenue.

To be sure, Stoney has previously said he doesn't agree with the symbolism touted by the monuments' advocates.

He has been an outspoken critic of the monuments, saying they perpetuate a "false narrative" meant "to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery" and "perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy."

But he has also repeatedly said he wants to find a way to preserve them while adding more "context" to the structures — in other words, make it clear through placards or other signage that the statues are historical artifacts and not meant to be shrines to the Confederate leaders they depict.

In June, a few months after taking office, Stoney formed the commission to discuss the fate of the monuments. The group is led by Christy Coleman, the CEO of the American Civil War Museum, and Gregg Kimball, the director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia.

The commission has considered adding signage to existing monuments and building more statues along the boulevard that celebrate a more diverse range of American leaders.

That was part of the intent behind the 1996 erection of a statue of Arthur Ashe Jr., the Richmond native who became the first African-American man to win Wimbledon. The statue is the sixth of Monument Avenue's six. The rest are Confederate leaders.

"I think we should consider what Monument Avenue would look like with a little more diversity," Stoney said during a press conference in June. "Right now, Arthur Ashe stands alone — and he is the only true champion on that street."

The commission met several times this summer, and is also holding public hearings to discuss ways to add context to the monuments.

RELATED: A look back at the violent Charlottesville protests

44 PHOTOS
Charlottesville violence erupts as protesters and counterprotesters clash
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Charlottesville violence erupts as protesters and counterprotesters clash
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: A White Supremacist kicks back a smoke bomb thrown by counter protestors during clashes at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: A White Supremacist tries to strike a counter protestor with a White Nationalist flag during clashes at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Rescue workers assist people who were injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
People receive first-aid after a car accident ran into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. A vehicle plowed into a crowd of people Saturday at a Virginia rally where violence erupted between white nationalist demonstrators and counter-protesters, witnesses said, causing an unclear number of injuries. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: Police, medical personnel, and other protestors attend to the injured people after a car rammed into a crowd of anti-White Supremacy protestors in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A woman who was injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally is helped in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts?
Rescue workers assist people who were injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Rescue workers transport a victim who was injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A woman is received first-aid after a car accident ran into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. A picturesque Virginia city braced Saturday for a flood of white nationalist demonstrators as well as counter-protesters, declaring a local emergency as law enforcement attempted to quell early violent clashes. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
People receive first-aid after a car accident ran into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. A picturesque Virginia city braced Saturday for a flood of white nationalist demonstrators as well as counter-protesters, declaring a local emergency as law enforcement attempted to quell early violent clashes. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Rescue workers assist people who were injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A woman is received first-aid after a car accident ran into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. A picturesque Virginia city braced Saturday for a flood of white nationalist demonstrators as well as counter-protesters, declaring a local emergency as law enforcement attempted to quell early violent clashes. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: A White Supremacist helps a friend after he was punched in the face during clashes with counter protestors at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: A counter protestor strikes a White Nationalist with a baton during clashes at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: White Supremacists and counter protestors clash at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man is seen with an injury during a clash between members of white nationalist protesters against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Virginia State Police move in as members of white nationalist protesters clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
People struggle with a Confederate flag as a crowd of white nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Ide
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: White Supremacists rush forward with shields and sticks during clashes with counter protestors at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A white supremacists stands behind militia members after he scuffled with a counter demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A white supremacists stands with militia members after he scuffled with a counter demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A white supremacists stands behind militia members after he scuffled with a counter demonstrator in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 12: White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' take refuge in an alleyway after being hit with pepper spray after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. After clashes with anti-facist protesters and police the rally was declared an unlawful gathering and people were forced out of Lee Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Members of white nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of white nationalists clash against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A white supremacists carries the Confederate flag as he arrives for a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Virginia State Troopers stand under a statue of Robert E. Lee before a white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A white supremacist holds a flag during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A member of a white supremacists militia stands near a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Virginia State Police officer aims during clash protests in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. A picturesque Virginia city braced Saturday for a flood of white nationalist demonstrators as well as counter-protesters, declaring a local emergency as law enforcement attempted to quell early violent clashes. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: White Supremacists and counter protestors clash at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - August 12: A White Supremacist with a White Nationalist flag during clashes with counter protestors at Emancipation Park where the White Nationalists are protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 12, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Rescue workers assist people who were injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
First responders stand by a car that was struck when a car drove through a group of counter protesters at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Ide
Rescue workers transport a victim who was injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Rescue workers assist people who were injured when a car drove through a group of counter protestors at the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A man who was hit with pepper spray reacts during a clash between a crowd of white supremacist protesters against a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Justin Ide
White supremacists clash with counter protesters during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A white supremacist militia member stands in front of clergy counter protesting during rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A counter protest yells at white supremacists during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
A Virginia State Trooper stands guard at the crime scene where a vehicle plowed into a crowd of counter protesters and two other vehicles (rear) near the "Unite the Right" rally organized by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
White supremacists stand behind their shields at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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Many groups, including the Richmond Free Press, the city's largest black-owned media outlet, are unhappy with proposals to add context to the statues and want the city to tear down the monuments.

In an editorial, the outlet equated adding context to "putting lipstick on a pig."

"What context can possibly change the statues' meaning and message from what was meant when they were erected following a bloody Civil War fought to keep black people in bondage?" the editorial said, also asking "what can possibly change their present context as tributes glorifying racist, un-American traitors."

Some Confederate heritage groups and historians are also against the idea of adding context. They say the monuments should be left untouched.

During an August hearing, B. Frank Earnest Sr., a representative of the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said it's clear that the statues memorialize people who sacrificed their lives during a war, "Not some silliness about Jim Crow and trying to bring back slavery or whatever silliness they think it is," the Times-Dispatch reported.

For now, the fate of the monuments, which were erected decades after the Civil War ended, between 1890 and 1930, is more uncertain than ever before.

"While we had hoped to use this process to educate Virginians about the history behind these monuments, the events of the last week may have fundamentally changed our ability to do so by revealing their power to serve as a rallying point for division and intolerance and violence," Stoney said in August.

The Monument Avenue statues have been targeted and even defaced by protesters in the past, but they have yet to inspire the kind of violence seen in Charlottesville.

Following the presidential election in November, protesters spray-painted "your vote was a hate crime" across two of the monuments.

The day after the Charlottesville protests, hundreds of people descended on Monument Avenue chanting "tear the racist statues down."

One man climbed onto the J.E.B. Stuart statue and planted an anti-fascist flag on Stuart's horse. 

Now, the city is holding its collective breath in hopes that nothing like what unfolded in Charlottesville descends on Monument Avenue.

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