Statues and Residential Space

Richmond’s Monument Avenue: Jim Crow and Beyond

Monument Avenue created an all-white neighborhood, which was a win for the Jim Crow era, a time of racial segregation policies that began in the early twentieth century. From the beginning of the avenue’s residential construction in the 1890s and 1900s, every land use deed restricted anyone “of African descent” from renting or buying.[1] In 1911, the city of Richmond passed an ordinance that restricted African American residences to areas that already constituted an African American majority. This ordinance restricted African Americans to areas such as Jackson Ward, which was a majority-black neighborhood that suffered from disinvestment and toxic waste when the city placed a garbage incinerator in the ward in 1891.[2] In 1929, the city of Richmond’s ordinance applied Virginia’s new “racial-integrity law” and “prohibited a person from living in a neighborhood where he or she was prevented from marrying any member of the majority population.”[3] This ordinance was meant to segregate residential areas based on the new state law which criminalized interracial marriage. These ordinances and real estate deeds clearly set up Monument Avenue to be an all-white neighborhood that excluded people of color, helping Jim Crow cultural goals of racial separation and exclusion. In part because of these deeds and ordinances, the Monument Avenue historic district continues to be majority-white and the Jackson Ward neighborhood continues to be majority-black.

Black and white people perceived Monument Avenue in the beginning of the twentieth century as a white majority area both residentially and culturally. Between the years 1900 to 1920, the phrase “Monument Avenue” is only mentioned 10 times in the Black owned Richmond Planet newspaper. This modest number contrasts greatly to the 2,551 times “Monument Avenue” is mentioned between 1914 and 1920 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the primary newspaper in Richmond originally published by a Confederate veteran.[4] This quantitative gap shows the cultural gulf between white and black views of and even attention to Monument Avenue. White writers mention the avenue in the Times-Dispatch via housing advertisements, news about monument additions and railroad extensions on the avenue, etc., while the Planet’s mentions are only in regard to traffic accidents or other places where reported events happened there. This reveals how the white community was mostly invested in discussing the future of the avenue for white residents and Richmonders, while the Planet described the avenue as a site for past and future events that restricted Black Richmonders.

            Yet the Planet’s mentions demonstrate the overlooked fact that African Americans worked on the avenue for white residents and builders. An article in 1918 outlining the arrests of bootleggers from an incident at the Richmond Hotel mentions the arrest of a Frank Lemon, who was described as the chauffeur of 1921 Stuart Avenue, a side street off of Monument Avenue.[5] Ellen Glasgow provides another example of black work on the avenue when her novel depicts a scene on the avenue where “…children…[were] accompanied by negro nurses wheeling perambulators…” (505). Sarah Driggs also points out there was significant black labor in constructing and building the actual houses and apartment buildings on Monument Avenue.[6] Eighty-five percent of the avenue’s households had at least one live-in black servant in 1910, and the servants were known to use the alleyways behind the avenue and side street as some workers were not allowed to use the front door of the residences according to Kathy Edwards and Esmé Howard.[7] So, although the avenue was conceived as a white elite promenade that housed white residents only, African Americans played major roles in building and maintaining the avenue through different work such as construction, nannying, and chauffeuring.

            The avenue continued to exclude African Americans and privilege white residents and citizens, but the last Confederate addition of the Matthew Fontaine Maury statue on Monument Avenue reflected a repositioning of the New South as a civic and culturally progressive place that still ignored its racial issues. Maury’s memorial was located further west and was the last Confederate statue added in 1929. His sculpture was also the most visually different. As opposed to the other statues standing alone or riding a horse,[8] Maury was sculpted sitting with a globe and a “figural group being battered by storms” behind him.[9] Known as the “father of oceanography,” Maury was a Confederate naval navigator who helped lay transatlantic cables to track weather patterns and hurricanes. The design reflects a “changed intellectual and cultural climate in Richmond during the 1920s” that is a departure from the Lost Cause narrative, emphasizing military and political might less and underscoring Maury’s scientific and civic contributions.[10] Sarah Driggs suggests this change was to incentivize Northern investors who were increasingly critical of the Lost Cause.[11] At the least, Maury’s statue symbolized worldly contributions and civic duty. The Maury statue was suggested by a Richmond citizen who “was struck by the reverence shown for Maury in a naval museum” while traveling in Germany in 1906.[12] In this case, civic and scientific contribution, instead of financial investment, trumped race. Perhaps it was because the neighborhood was already financially successful, as 63% of the avenue’s buildings were built by 1929, but Maury’s design clearly favors the scientific contributions he made over his military experience. However, Maury was still a part of the Confederacy, and continued the avenue’s precedent of promoting oneself and by extension, Richmond and the South, as successful in distinct ways while ignoring the racial implications inherent in honoring the Confederacy.

Fig. 6. “1300 Block Monument Avenue.” A view of Matthew Maury’s statue.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Block Monument Avenue, Richmond, Independent City, VA
. Richmond Virginia Independent City, 1933. translateds by Schwanmitter, and Price, Virginia Bmitter Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/va1641/.

After Maury’s statue in 1929, there was no new statue placed on the avenue until 1996. Meanwhile, in 1970, Monument Avenue became a National Register Historic District and a site of annual festivities for the city such as Easter celebrations and 10k races and marathons.[13] In 1995, city leaders decided to add African American tennis player Arthur Ashe onto the avenue following his death. Since he was born in Richmond, it seemed appropriate to place a statue dedicated to his tennis career and life of activism. However, there were disagreements from both sides of the political spectrum: some people simply did not want a black person on an avenue that otherwise represented white Confederate soldiers while the majority-black city council was apprehensive of the location and suggested Ashe should be placed in a majority-black neighborhood.[14] Ashe’s statue was placed on the most western end of the avenue and is depicted holding a tennis racket and a book in front of cheering children. In 1996, when the statue was unveiled, there were large protests from both the political left and right.[15] The neo-Confederate protests of 1996 in particular exemplify that some people still viewed the monuments, and by extension the avenue, as a site meant for celebrating the white supremacist vision that shaped the Confederacy and not for acknowledging military or civic contributions. 

Fig. 7. Arthur Ashe’s memorial on Monument Avenue. Photo taken by author November of 2020.

Ironically, Ashe and Lee, the first and last statues, are the only remaining figures currently on the avenue. And even more ironically, the statues are not facing each other, not even in opposite directions – Lee is facing south while Ashe is facing west – and so they are not in symbolic conversation with each other.[16] This is important because sometimes the orientation of monuments affect the cultural landscape differently. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. facing the Thomas Jefferson memorial across Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin is provocative symbolism that highlights tensions between America’s white and black history. The sculptor of Arthur Ashe argued for the statue to face west, since the light from the south and west would best present the statue, though it was a reportedly controversial decision.[17] Not all of the Monument Avenue Confederate statues faced one another, but most did or were in close proximity to Lee; for instance, Stuart’s monument faced and was only a block away from Lee while Ashe faces away, and is almost a mile and a half away, from Lee. Sarah Driggs interprets Ashe’s orientation as purposefully turning his back on the Confederate past, forging new roads of racial equality and integration.[18] Others could argue that because Lee and Ashe are the only remaining statues on the avenue, besides the current graffiti around Lee, one could walk the avenue and never know the intervention Ashe makes. Though Ashe is still an important addition to the previously all-white Confederate landscape, it is not clear for passersby that his statue’s presence directly opposes the original plans for the avenue to be an all-white space that celebrates the Confederacy. 


[1] Howards, 102.

[2] Ann Field Alexander, Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the ‘Fighting Editor,’ John Mithcell Jr. 

(Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 81.

[3] Kevin M. Levin, “Richmond’s Confederate Monuments Were Used to Sell a Segregated Neighborhood” The Atlantic Magazine. June 11, 2020.https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/its-not-just-the-monuments/612940/.

[4] “About Richmond times-dispatch. 1914-current” https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045389/.

[5] Richmond planet. [volume] (Richmond, Va.), 15 June 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84025841/1918-06-15/ed-1/seq-2/>

[6] Driggs, 113.

[7] Kathy Edwards and Esmé Howard, “Monument Avenue: The Architecture of Consensus in the New South, 1890-1930” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 6, Shaping Communities (1997), 102. 

[8] With the exception of Jefferson Davis’s staute, who stood upright but was surrounded by other symbols and figures. I argue that Davis is still standing alone and is not as clear a visual difference as Maury’s statue.; Torrono.

[9] Driggs, 87.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 82.

[13] Howard, 107; “On Monument Avenue,” The American Civil War Museum, the Library of Virginia, The Valentine, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. https://onmonumentave.com/onlineexhibits.

[14] Howard, 107.

[15] “Photos: Richmond’s Monument Avenue Throughout the Years,” Richmond Times-Dispatch. August 16, 2017. https://richmond.com/news/local/photos-richmonds-monument-avenue-through-the-years/collection_f483c3cc-b7af-11e3-84f6-0017a43b2370.html#10

[16] Jonathan W. White and Scott Sandage, “What Frederick Douglass Had to Say About Monuments.” Smithsonian Magazine, June 30, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-frederick-douglass-had-say-about-monuments-180975225/

[17] Driggs, 95.

[18] Ibid.