Originally published in the Autumn 2018 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 58, printed November 8. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2018 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post (pending). For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.
2019 will be a watershed year for Virginia.
For one thing, it will mark 400 years since the organization of the House of Burgesses, the first European representative body in what would become the United States.
OK, representative of property-owning white men, but it evolved into the state’s General Assembly, right? OK, that body mostly serves property-owning white men too.
But hey, 400 years!
Also 400 years since the arrival of the first large group of European women, and the first Thanksgiving. (Sorry, Massachusetts.)
More importantly, 1619 was the year the first Africans – that we know of – were forcibly brought to English-occupied North America. And for that reason there’s going to be a lot of interest about our present state of race relations.
There’s already been a lot of interest. Before and after Charlottesville, national and international media have been flocking to Richmond, ground zero for the Lost Cause mythology, to see what we’re doing with our statues. The Washington Post. The Boston Globe. The New Yorker. Reuters. Al-Jazeera. The Defenders, early critics of the statues, have been giving a lot of interviews.
In many other cities – New Orleans, Baltimore, Orlando, Memphis – city governments have taken down their Confederate statues. Here in Richmond, city council just voted 6-3, largely along racial lines, not to even ask the General Assembly for the authority to take down just the five Confederate statues on Monument Avenue – if and when it ever decided to do so.
Profiles in courage, this is not.
The other big race-related issue, of course, has been the future of Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom, once the epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade and now the lust object of the city’s developers. You know, the ones who give a lot of money to politicians.
Seven years after Virginia Commonwealth University was forced by community pressure to give up its parking lot that desecrated the African Burial Ground, city government has yet to enact any kind of protective zoning for that early municipal cemetery for enslaved and free Black people. Why, it’s almost as if they’re trying to wait us out.
So here we are going into 2019 with the country’s biggest public collection of Confederate memorabilia, while little progress is being made on properly memorializing Shockoe Bottom with a nine-acre memorial park, which is what the community has made abundantly clear it wants.
This glaring contradiction – maintaining grand symbols to white supremacy while neglecting sacred ground uniquely important to the country’s Black community – will make it a tough time to be mayor or one of these council members too frightened by tough issues to even want the power to deal with them.
And rest assured, the Defenders will do our best to make sure the world stays focused on this shameful situation.