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Virginia's Monument Avenue Sees Great Change Amid Racial Unrest In The U.S.


The House of Representatives has approved legislation to remove Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol, though it's unlikely to happen because it is very unlikely it'll pass the U.S. Senate. Today, a hearing is scheduled on the fate of one of the most prominent Confederate monuments in the country, the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va. It's the last remaining statue of the Confederate leader on Richmond's iconic Monument Avenue. Other Confederate statues that have stood for a century along that avenue have been taken down. And as Mallory Noe-Payne of member station WVTF reports, the community has reclaimed the space.


MALLORY NOE-PAYNE, BYLINE: It's a scene few Richmonders would've imagined even a couple months ago, a trio of Black musicians playing under the shadow of Robert E. Lee.


NOE-PAYNE: Trombone player Isaiah Robinson says he doesn't even consider the looming Confederate general.

ISAIAH ROBINSON: When I'm playing, I don't think about him. I think about my ancestors. You know what I'm saying? And every time I think about them, it makes me play harder. You know what I'm saying? I feel their spirit.

NOE-PAYNE: For weeks, Richmonders have taken over the circle of land at the base of the monument, grilling out, playing games.


NOE-PAYNE: Yarreem Hall is 18 and grew up just a few miles from here in some of the city's public housing.

YARREEM HALL: Came out here for the first time yesterday and really sat out here for a good two hours. I played basketball, listened to music with different people, ate different food. You know, it is chill.

NOE-PAYNE: Michelle Bebbs says it used to only be white people, really, walking on Monument Avenue.

MICHELLE BEBBS: If you're Black, you get a funny look being here, like you don't belong. But now it just feels comfortable. It feels good.

NOE-PAYNE: This transformation is all the more radical given Monument Avenue's origin story. It begins with the unveiling of the Lee monument in 1890 to a crowd of 150,000 people. Kevin Levin is a Civil War historian. He says the monuments were the centerpieces of an exclusive real estate development.

KEVIN LEVIN: This was a neighborhood set aside specifically for white Richmonders to raise their families, but also a place where white Richmonders and others could come to celebrate the generals who fought in the 1860s, who fought for the Confederacy.

NOE-PAYNE: At the same time, lynchings in Virginia spiked and Black representation in the state Legislature plummeted. Levin says this broad tree-lined avenue, where residents got paved streets and electric lights, did the insidious work of relegating African Americans to second-class status.

LEVIN: It's not just the monuments that help to reinforce this racial divide; it's everything that comes along for the ride, everything that white Richmonders and white Southerners benefitted from.

NOE-PAYNE: Despite those barriers, Richmond's Black community resisted.

JOSEPH ROGERS: The response is to keep on living.

NOE-PAYNE: Joseph Rogers is a historian at the American Civil War Museum.

ROGERS: It concentrated itself by just being in community with each other and trying to build up the best communities that they could.

NOE-PAYNE: Parts of the segregated city became known as Black Wall Street and the Harlem of the South. Today, when Rogers thinks of monuments in Richmond, he doesn't just think of Monument Avenue but of a statue one block away of the Black entrepreneur Maggie Walker.

ROGERS: And she's in mid-stride, ready to cross that street and bridge that gap. And I think that we have done it. We've taken that step with her and for her, and we've really reclaimed that space and we have made it inclusive for everyone.

NOE-PAYNE: Back at the Lee monument, things are quieter in the morning. A man naps in the shade. A couple people play chess. Richmonder Howard Hopkins has always viewed this space as a threat, no different than the burning cross he says was left in his family's yard when he was a child.

HOWARD HOPKINS: You know, I may have ridden down it, but I never stopped.

NOE-PAYNE: That changed recently. He rushed down here to watch as crews removed the first monument, lifting General Stonewall Jackson off his pedestal.

HOPKINS: From the moving it up to moving it over, each one of those movements was representation of we are in a place that the world is beginning to change.

NOE-PAYNE: Critics say removing Confederate monuments erases our history, but Hopkins says we're simply writing the next chapter.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Noe-Payne in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a freelance reporter and producer based in Richmond, Virginia. Although she's a native Virginian, she's most recently worked for public radio in Boston. There, she helped produce stories about higher education, including a nationally-airing series on the German university system. In addition to working for WGBH in Boston, she's worked at WAMU in Washington D.C. She graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in Journalism and Political Science.
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