'Nostalgia versus actual history': Confederacy capital grapples with future of its monuments

For Richmond, Va., resident Yvonne Libron, there was no better place to spread a message of healing in recent days than in the shadow of a statue tied to a past filled with hurt.

"I look at all the animosity and hate," she said. "And I think about what I can do to bring us together."

So she stands for hours in the blazing sun of Richmond, once the capital of the Confederacy, waving signs near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee asking passing drivers to honk for love.

If there's any consolation for Libron in the wake of old wounds being ripped open by last weekend's violence in Charlottesville, Va., it's that she gets a lot of honks.

"Charlottesville left me torn, broken," she said. "It's so reminiscent of the time we used to have in America and I can't stand to see it. Why would you want to bring that back?"

'Ideology' behind statues

Richmond's Lee statue stands in the middle of Monument Avenue, an idyllic southern corridor lined with trees and beautiful homes.

The street is aptly named. Along with Lee, the avenue features monuments dedicated to other Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, J.E.B Stuart and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

Richmond, like so many cities across the South, has been grappling with the future of its monuments for years — forced to consider whether they should remain part of the city's landscape or be taken down to ensure those who fought to preserve slavery are not glorified.

"What we're up against are sentiments of nostalgia versus actual history," said Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. "We have to come to grips with the underlying and irrefutable reality that these monuments aren't just to lost soldiers but also to an ideology."

It was an already fierce debate that has now been amplified after white supremacists converged in Charlottesville, just an hour away, under the guise of protecting the Lee monument there.

The death of Heather Heyer, who was at the Charlottesville event to counter-protest white supremacists, spurred a change of heart for both Virginia's governor and the mayor of Richmond. Having previously said the statues should remain, both politicians are now calling for them to be removed.

"These monuments should be a part of our dark past and not of our bright future," wrote Mayor Levar Stoney.

'I should not have to drive by this'

President Donald Trump's much-criticized response to the events in Charlottesville also changed Ravi Perry's mind.

A political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Perry once supported a proposal to keep the monuments up, but with added context, such as plaques with information about slavery and life in the Confederacy to ensure the statues gave an accurate, rather than idealized, version of history.

But after white supremacists applauded Trump's assertion that "both sides" were to blame in Charlottesville, Perry says the statues should be removed from public lands entirely.

"They should be put in private parks, where students can go to learn about the history, but the public should not have to drive by them, particularly in a city that's 50 per cent black," Perry said.

"I should not have to drive by this every single day as a person of colour living in 2017."

Confronting the past

There are an estimated 1,500 public symbols honouring the Confederacy across 31 states, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A wave of monument construction happened around the turn of the 20th century. Historians say it was prompted by several factors.

Confederate veterans were dying of old age and their descendants wanted to honour them. But it was also a time when white southerners, recovering from their loss in the Civil War, were reaffirming their control over the black population through a system of institutionalized racism.

"With the freedom they felt to put them up, there was also a freedom to reassert white supremacy," said Coleman at the American Civil War Museum. "And they did it with abandon."

The last time there was a loud national conversation about Confederate symbols was following the 2015 shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by white supremacist Dylann Roof. It led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.

'There are not just two sides to this'

Several cities have taken down their monuments over the past week. In Durham, N.C., protesters took matters into their own hands by pulling down a statue of Lee.

"Communities decided when they went up and ultimately communities are deciding when they come down," Coleman said.

But Henry Kidd, a historical artist and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the removals are heartbreaking.

"Everything that's going on right now is a real tragedy because there are not just two sides to this. It's not just racist people against the people who want to tear them down," he said.

Kidd said he belongs to a third side: those who want to keep the statues for their historical value and because they represent their ancestors. He dismisses the arguments for the monuments' removal.

"You can't put today's morals on people who lived centuries ago," he said. "We should let everyone be able to honour their ancestors, their history and where they came from."

It's a sentiment echoed by Trump, who tweeted this about the statues: "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments."

'Seems like a no-brainer'

But even as Kidd, and Trump, lobby for the monuments to be saved, the descendants of those they honour — including the great-great grandsons of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson —have joined a chorus calling for them to be taken down or relocated.

"You put up monuments to honour a person or cause and you take them down when you think that person or cause should no longer be honoured," said Phil Wilayto, founding member of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality.

"So the question is: Do we still think we should honour the people who fought to maintain a system of chattel slavery? Seems like a no-brainer."

With Richmond's ties to its past so evident along Monument Avenue, a contentious debate is set to become even more fraught. For Yvonne Libron, that's motivation enough to keep calling for unity beside a statue that stirs so much division.

"If the world bends to hate, that's all you're going to get. Do something that looks like love," she said. "And if you don't know what that looks like, 'Hey, look at me!'"