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Remnants of Confederacy remain in Richmond

historical marker
Directly outside Richmond Police Department headquarters lies a marker noting the site of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's death. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Though monuments to the Confederacy have been taken down across Richmond, either by protesters for Black liberation or by the local and state government, remnants of the city’s glorification of the Confederacy still remain. 

Seven historical markers celebrating people, victories and institutions with ties to the Confederacy can still be found throughout Virginia’s capital city. 

Local activists for Black liberation say those markers glorify the Confederacy and the enslavement of African Americans. 

Lawrence West led the occupation of a traffic circle surrounding the now removed Robert E. Lee monument, which was renamed by protesters in honor of Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by Richmond police. He says these remaining nods to the “Lost Cause” are harmful and deceptive. 

“The great legacy is that the North won, slavery's gone. And for you to celebrate anything else, it's more like you're going against what America stands for,” West said. “You're celebrating the loss really, which kind of makes you a loser.” 

Virginia has the longest running historical marker program in the country. The Department of HIstoric Resources oversees the program. Their director, State Historic Preservation Officer Julie Langan, says the department isn’t interested in taking down markers due to objections over their subject matter. 

“We wouldn’t remove a marker just because someone doesn’t like the topic,” Langan said. “It's not possible for someone else to just decide to remove a marker. The Commonwealth is the one who makes that decision.” 

West says there’s a place for these reminders of Virginia’s glorification of the Confederacy in museums, but that it’s traumatic as a Black person to see these reminders of the atrocities committed against their ancestors while going about their day. 

These markers are spread all over the city, so Lawrence argues Black people can’t always avoid them. Instead, he says they should be confined to historic sites like battlefields and not on the streets of his city.  

“Those types of places, where people actually have to physically go and make a decision that they want to relive those things,” West said. “I think it belongs in history, because it is a part of American history. But I will say that it's not needed to be in public spaces.

These days, historical markers in Virginia go through a fairly rigorous process before they’re staked into the ground. 

“We have a staff of Ph.D historians who review the suggestions and work on the language for the marker. And then there's a marker editorial committee, that's an outside committee of expert historians who review the proposed text,” Langan said. “And then those have to receive formal and final approval from the Board of Historic Resources, which is a board appointed by the governor.” 

Historical societies or organizations, fraternal organizations, colleges and universities, local governments, private organizations or individuals can apply to create a new marker. The department can also sponsor it’s own markers, but Langan says the majority are proposed by outside organizations. 

These sponsors are responsible for paying for the signs, which cost $1,770. Once they’re paid for and approved, the Virginia Department of Transportation maintains the signs. 

West says that’s a waste of resources. 

“Those markers also are being maintained by the same tax dollars that you and I are giving to our government in order to maintain our social structure. It's counterintuitive for me to pay towards helping maintain something that offends me on a regular basis,” West said. 

There is a process for removing these markers, but the department doesn’t consider petitions related to the markers’ subject matter. That means applications for them to be removed due to their affinity to the Confederacy will not be considered. Instead, they will only amend markers if their experts agree that they are historically inaccurate. 

“We want to replace them so that they're not providing false information to the public,” Langan said. 

Instead of petitioning to remove or amend existing markers for this reason, Langan suggests that community members and organizations who want more representation of their histories apply for their own markers to be erected. 

“So people who might not like a particular topic and wish that it be removed from the system, we would say ‘no’ as long as the marker is accurate,” Langan said. 

When approving signs, the department considers whether a marker has the potential to educate the public, whether it addresses the history of a marginalized or underrepresented community and if it celebrates a historical occurrence that has statewide significance. 

“Typically, the topic is not something recent, it's something that is historical. So for us, the definition of that is something that happened at least 50 years ago,” Langan said. “In addition, if the subject is a person, we don't recognize, with highway markers, people who are still living.”

In Richmond, historical markers celebrating Black history far outweighs the number of markers that celebrate the Confederacy. But West emphasizes that those markers, unlike remnants of the Confederacy, aren’t traumatizing for a large portion of the population. 

“That shouldn't be glorified in public spaces to where it can be offensive to someone like myself,” West said. 

He also says that while the markers celebrating positive parts of Black history are plentiful in Richmond, the history of Virginia is incomplete without markers that acknowledge the crimes committed against enslaved people. 

“We have to tell that story,” West said. “No one's concerned about our history, about the pillaging and raping and kidnapping.” 

The department chooses five proposed historic markers every year. The next deadline for submitting an application is May 1, 2022. To learn more about applying, click this link

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