October 2017

White Supremacy and the Landscapes of Memory in Richmond, Virginia in the 1960s

It might seem that memory and heritage have lost their power to excite political action and are no longer the medium through which white supremacy is asserted. Yet Lost Cause mythology has never gone away and maintains its firm grip on the thoughts and emotions of many white Americans. 

by Matthew Mace Barbee

For the past 150 years, the foundations of white supremacy have been developed and promulgated through the myth of the Lost Cause and the normalization of Confederate heritage. As Reconstruction waned and Jim Crow segregation arose, networks of monuments, museums, and commemorations spread across the U.S., but especially in the south, and became potent reminders of the social and political order.[1] Throughout twentieth-century Richmond, Virginia’s historical landscape was dominated by museums, memorials, and cemeteries dedicated to the myth of the Lost Cause. The most prominent and visible manifestation of this landscape is Monument Avenue, a boulevard named for the statues of Confederate leaders which line its central median.

Although the last Confederate memorial was added in 1929, Monument Avenue has continually been a key symbolic site for white supremacist movements which have attempted to influence and control city and state politics and extend the marginalization and exclusion of African-American voters. The political and rhetorical strategies of these white supremacists was especially evident in the work of Richmond Forward, a 1960s conservative political movement with direct ties to Massive Resistance that worked to influence Richmond’s political structures and memorial landscape.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, civil rights activists in Richmond ran successful voter registration drives and helped the NAACP to victory in Brown vs. Board. Their efforts as well as demographic changes offered hope that Richmond would overcome two centuries of white supremacist rule. However, these efforts were opposed by Massive Resistance, a coordinated effort led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, which sought to delay or prevent implementation of Brown vs. Board in Virginia Schools. By 1960, African-Americans accounted for 42 percent of Richmond’s population and data collected in the 1960 census and predicted that by 1968 Richmond’s population would be majority African American.

Portrait of Senator Harry Byrd, Richmond Forward member and chief architect of massive resistance to desegregation. Courtesy Wikimedia.

In 1963, white business leaders formed Richmond Forward, a new conservative political organization which intended to prevent or forestall these demographic changes.[2] Members of Richmond Forward included men who with considerable influence in Richmond and Virginia politics, in particular David Mays and James C. Wheat. An attorney, Mays had been the architect of Massive Resistance and counsel to The Gray Commission, which worked to prevent or at least delay school integration in Virginia. Wheat was chair of the City Planning Commission, a powerful body in city government which had considerable influence in urban development, including street construction, zoning, and the authorization of monuments and memorials. Operating in secret, Richmond Forward worked to annex wholly white communities in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield Counties in hopes that this would shift Richmond’s demographics and prevent, or at least delay, African Americans from becoming the majority in the city.

As the dominant conservative organization in Richmond, Richmond Forward was necessarily working against the civil rights organization Richmond Crusade for Voters.

Mays led the annexation and merger negotiations which largely occurred behind closed doors or through back channels. Publicly, Richmond Forward stated that it did not anticipate but would welcome annexation of white suburbs and pledged that Richmond Forward was committed to “true representation” for all residents of Richmond.[3] However, their true goals are clearly stated in internal documents, including talking points given to conservative candidates running in the 1964 City Council election. For example, a January 1964 document details questions that candidates might expect to be asked along with suggested responses. Richmond Forward was concerned that its candidates would face difficult questions about race and civil rights and the document offers some guidelines for evading and deflecting any such conversation. For example, if asked “about better jobs in the city government for Negroes,” Richmond Forward recommended that candidates should shift the conversation away from race and simply answer “that every citizen should have an equal opportunity for employment and that jobs should be awarded on the basis of qualifications and not race, creed or color.”[4]  If asked about their companies’ policies on employing African Americans, candidates were encouraged to limit themselves to statements such as “at the present time my company does not employ any Negro personnel” or that their company “has no policy restricting the employment of Negroes. When job vacancies occur within our organization, those jobs are filled on the basis of qualification and merit, and not because of a man’s religion or his race.”[5]

As the dominant conservative organization in Richmond, Richmond Forward was necessarily working against the civil rights organization Richmond Crusade for Voters, and these organizations had dramatically divergent views on issues which would impact the political strength and community cohesion of African Americans. Proposed federal urban renewal programs were a major issue in the 1964 City Council elections. In April 1964, Richmond Forward leadership drafted an internal memo which encouraged members to speak out against federal urban renewal programs and argue that public housing should be subject to strict enforcement of housing codes and that any buildings in violation of those codes should be transferred to the control of private corporations.[6]

Crusade for Voters pamphlet announcing that “in solidarity there is strength.” Courtesy DailyKos.

The Richmond Crusade for Voters resisted federal urban renewal programs because they foresaw it would have a negative impact on working- and middle-class families. Additionally, the Richmond Crusade for Voters came out against increased amenities, such as a new civic center and the opening of new public pools, which might divert funding from schools, libraries, and other educational programs. Richmond Crusade for Voters candidates were also opposed Richmond Forward’s proposal to have private enterprises take control of local housing programs, stating that Richmond Forward’s “slum clearance” programs would lead to “slum creation.”[7] Stressing that these policies would effectively end African-American home ownership, they argued that the city should encourage and support private ownership of homes and increased funding for vocational training and the Richmond Professional Institute.[8] It seems clear that Richmond Crusade for Voters recognized that home ownership and a mix of skilled trades and professional careers were essential to the stability and political strength of Richmond’s African-American communities.

Internal Richmond Forward documents make clear that they felt threatened by and worked to prevent African-American political action and to forestall integration.

During the 1964 city council campaigns, Richmond Forward repeatedly argued for policies which were directly countered by Richmond Crusade for Voters. Although they did not openly acknowledge their involvement in annexation efforts and carefully avoided using racist or inflammatory language, internal Richmond Forward documents make clear that they felt threatened by and worked to prevent African-American political action and to forestall integration. These documents note that Henry Marsh, a leader of Richmond Crusade for Voters and the protégé of the NAACP’s Oliver Hill, deserved respect, but otherwise paint a grim picture of civil rights activists, claiming that “the opposition is against everything” and would ruin Richmond. Fear and accusations of negativity were essential components of Richmond Forward’s efforts to perpetuate racial hierarchies and maintain Richmond’s and Virginia’s traditions of rule by a pseudo-aristocratic, white elite. Throughout the 1960s, Richmond Forward and its members frequently claimed that if the Richmond Crusade for Voters and other civil rights groups were successful in gaining a stronger voice and influence in city government, their first act would be to tear down they city’s Confederate memorials and bring ruin to Monument Avenue.[9] These claims were baseless, but they were effective in perpetuating the belief that civil rights activists were “against everything” and posed a serious threat to Richmond and its white residents.

Richmond Protest
Protesters in Richmond boycotting Thalhimers Department Store, January 2, 1961. Courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch.

While David Mays continued to lead efforts to annex white suburbs, other members of Richmond Forward and their allies in state and city government encouraged and facilitated a reinvestment in and expansion of Richmond’s traditional association with the Confederacy and Lost Cause mythology. From 1961 to 1965 the U.S. marked the centennial of the Civil War and, fittingly, Richmond and Virginia played host to an extensive series of commemorations and educational programs. As the centennial came to an end, Richmond’s City Planning Commission, chaired by Richmond Forward member James C. Wheat, attempted to build on that success and proposed and expansion of the city’s network of Confederate memorials. Although never completed, these plans are noteworthy because of their intersections with the annexation and urban development goals of the anti-integrationist Richmond Forward. In a May 1965 letter, Wheat articulated his goals for Monument Avenue, calling it “an uncommon landmark” that offered “relaxation and escape from the asphalt jungle.”[10]

The City Planning Commission argued that the city should “preserve […] and reinforce rather than obscure those elements of our heritage which we value.”

Wheat laid out his goals in a December 1965 pamphlet “Design for Monument Avenue” which was published and distributed by the City Planning Commission.[11] Describing Monument Avenue as a “bridge from past to present” the City Planning Commission argued that the city should “preserve […] and reinforce rather than obscure those elements of our heritage which we value.” To achieve these goals the pamphlet “recommended that the theme of featuring prominent Confederate figures on Monument Avenue adopted earlier in this century be continued” and called for adding at least seven new Confederate memorials to Monument Avenue. Those monuments would have more than doubled the number of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue and nearly every intersection between downtown Richmond and the city border would have been marked by a memorial.

These plans to expand Monument Avenue began to move forward before falling apart. The city government created an independent committee to oversee the expansion. This committee largely consisted of people who had direct or indirect ties to Richmond Forward, Massive Resistance, and other anti-integration efforts. Led by Richmond Forward member Roland Reynolds, the committee included Lieutenant Governor Fred Pollard, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, and General Edwin Conquest, the leader of Richmond Forward. They were joined by the curator of the Museum of the Confederacy and executive officers of the Daughters of the Confederacy. However, despite the committee members’ influence and the City Planning Commission’s support, plans to expand Monument Avenue fell apart quickly, perhaps because of their overly ambitious or even misguided ideas for a new monument. Determined both to continue the Confederate theme and create a distinctive memorial, the committee settled on honoring Sally Tompkins, a nurse who had tended to Confederate soldiers, and asked Salvador Dali to design the statue. Dali proposed a towering memorial made out of pink-tinted aluminum in which Tompkins would appear as Saint George battling a dragon made of microbes atop a pedestal designed to look like a petri dish balanced on a model of Dali’s own index finger. Dali’s proposal was not well received. The committee disbanded and the City Planning Commission’s plans to expand Monument Avenue were dropped.

dali 2
J. Peter Moore, Salvador Dali’s assistant, touring Richmond’s Monument Avenue with Babu, Dali’s ocelot in March 1966. Courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Despite this setback, Richmond Forward continued its efforts to limit African-American political power and to alter the city’s landscape. In 1965, plans to annex portions off Henrico County fell apart but Richmond Forward turned its attention to Chesterfield County. In 1970, the organization was able to arrange the annexation of some predominantly white suburbs and, very briefly, the long-feared African-American majority was held at bay. However, soon after the transfer was enacted a Richmonder named Curtis Holt, a man who had never been actively involved in Civil Rights activism, sued the city on the grounds that the annexation violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Holt eventually won his case and the decision required that the city government be restructured so that it would not stymie or dilute African-American votes.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Richmond adjusted to its changing demographics. In the early 1980s the city elected its first majority African-American city council and its first African-American mayor. And in 1989 Doug Wilder was elected governor of Virginia, the first time in U.S. history that an African American was elected governor of a state. Throughout those years, Monument Avenue remained as it had been since 1929, a leafy boulevard marked by five Confederate memorials. But from 1994 to 1996 Richmond was riven by plans to place a statue of African-American tennis champion Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue and local politics were once again negotiated through debates over memory and heritage.

It might seem that memory and heritage have lost their power to excite political action and are no longer the medium through which white supremacy is asserted. But as the story of Richmond Forward, the debates over the Ashe monument, and the August 2017 riots in Charlottesville make clear, Lost Cause mythology has never gone away and maintains its firm grip on the thoughts and emotions of many white Americans.

Matthew Mace Barbee is Associate Professor and Chair of English at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan. His research and teaching focus on the intersections of race, masculinity, and memory in the contemporary U.S. south.

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[1] This history is most thoroughly covered in Blight, David, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, (Boston: Belknap P of Harvard U P, 2001) and Savage, Kirk, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America, (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1997).

[2] Byng, Michelle D., “A New Face in the Structure of Community: the Black Political Elite of Richmond, Virginia,” PhD Diss. U Virginia, 1994, 30-35.

[3] Papers of James C. Wheat (JCW), Richmond Forward Platform, 7 April 1964, Virginia Historical Society (VHS). JWC, Private Correspondence, 26 August 1963. JWC, Richmond Forward Newsletter, No Date

[4] JCW, 29 January 1963

[5] Ibid

[6] JCW, LWV Questionnaire, 1964.

[7] JCW, LWV Questionnaire, 1964.

[8] JCW, LWV Questionnaire, 1964.

[9] Moeser, John V., and Rutledge M. Dennis, The Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City, (Massachusetts: Schenkman P, 1982), 77; Randolph, Lewis A., and Gayle T. Tate, Rights for a Season: The Politics of Race, Class and Gender in Richmond, Virginia, (Knoxville: U Tennessee P, 2003), 120; Byng, 64

[10] JCW, Letter from Wheat, 17 May 1965.

[11] Richmond City Planning Commission, “Design for Monument Avenue,” JCW

3 comments on “White Supremacy and the Landscapes of Memory in Richmond, Virginia in the 1960s

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

  2. Pingback: “Bloom Where You’re Planted”: Local History as Activism and Healing – The Activist History Review

  3. Pingback: Editors’ Pick: Our Favorites from a Year of #ActivistHistory – The Activist History Review

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