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Commission To Add 'Context' To Richmond's Confederate Monuments


It's time to set the historical record straight. So says Levar Stoney, mayor of Richmond, Va., on the complicated and controversial issue of how to deal with the city's Confederate statues. Mayor Stoney has just announced a commission to look at ways to add context to the Confederate memorials on the city's famed Monument Avenue. It's an issue that New Orleans and other cities in the South have been tackling recently. But Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. And so it's a very big deal. Mayor Stoney, welcome.

LEVAR STONEY: Hey. How you doing, Lulu?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well. For people who haven't been to Richmond, can you describe Monument Avenue for us? What statues are there?

STONEY: Monument Avenue is one of the most beautiful stretches of street in the United States of America. I mean, it's tree-lined. It's on the national historic registry. There are statues to Robert E. Lee. There's a statue to Jeb Stuart, to, you know, Stonewall Jackson. And there's a lonely statue of Arthur Ashe, which I call the only true champion on that stretch of street.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tennis champion, Arthur Ashe.

STONEY: The tennis champion - Wimbledon, U.S. Open.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you feel about those men being honored in this prominent way? What is the problem with statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee being in the city that was the capital of the Confederacy?

STONEY: Well, you know, those statues currently stand on Monument Avenue - are the default endorsement of a shameful part of our history. And what I wanted to do was to take this step to tell the complete truth, the full story about how these monuments got there, why they got there and what they meant at the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let me ask you, what is that true story in your view? Some would say that when you're wanting to add context, it'll be opinion and not necessarily historical fact.

STONEY: No, I think this will be about fact. That's why I added a number of authors and historians to this commission. When these monuments were erected, they were to celebrate but also, I think, to intimidate individuals, as well. They were there to continue to convey what I think is, you know, alternative facts and history. At the end of the day, these individuals defended a time and a purpose that would probably have me and my ancestors in bondage. And that should not go untold.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some, though, would say this is a cop-out. New Orleans has torn down a number of its Confederate monuments. The city of Charlottesville, Va., voted to sell its statue of Robert E. Lee. Why not remove these statues?

STONEY: Well, first I will say that our monuments commission will obviously listen to all sides. They'll listen to those who think that we may be trying to rewrite history. We're going to listen to people who think that we should remove the monuments. My charge to the commission is to tell the whole truth. For some, this was the third rail in Richmond politics - that you can never touch Monument Avenue. And I think that right now this is an opportunity for us and a responsibility for us to write the next new chapter for the city of Richmond.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Levar Stoney, the Democratic mayor of Richmond, Va. We've been checking in with him throughout his first year in office. And we will be doing so as the year rolls on. Thank you so much for joining us.

STONEY: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.