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Richmond mayor: Keep existing Confederate statues, add context
'Part of our history'
W richmond
In this 2015 file photo the peloton of the UCI Elite Men's Road World Championship passes by the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. - photo by Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — The towering Confederate monuments in Virginia's capital city shouldn't be taken down, but instead should be supplemented with historical context about why they were built, Richmond's mayor said Thursday.

"Whether we like it or not, they are part of our history of this city, and removal would never wash away that stain," Mayor Levar Stoney said.

Instead, a commission of historians, authors and community leaders will solicit public input and make suggestions about how to "set the historical record straight" on the monuments in the former capital of the Confederacy, he announced at a news conference.

"Equal parts myth and deception, they were the 'alternative facts' of their time — a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago — not only to lionize the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy," the mayor said.

Stoney's announcement comes as many cities across the South engage in bitter debates over Confederate symbols, prompted in part by the 2015 shooting of nine black worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church by an avowed white supremacist. Opponents say the monuments are offensive relics of the region's racist past, while supporters call them a part of history that should be preserved.

Richmond's five Confederate statues are prominent fixtures on Monument Avenue, a boulevard lined with churches and historic mansions considered by many to be the city's most prestigious address and one of the nation's loveliest thoroughfares. Likenesses of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart; President Jefferson Davis; and oceanographer Matthew Maury are perched on large stone pedestals.

Stoney, who is African-American, took office in December at 35, the youngest mayor ever elected in Richmond. Before that, he worked for Gov. Terry McAuliffe as Secretary of the Commonwealth, a cabinet position with duties including processing the restoration of voting and civil rights for felons.

He said he's personally insulted by the monuments and wishes they had never been built.

"I think we should consider what Monument Avenue would look like with a little more diversity," he said.

The city has made one such effort already: A statue of black tennis champion Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was added in 1996, provoking a nationally publicized and racially charged dispute. Its dedication drew white protesters, including one who raised a Confederate flag.

The commission will hold public hearings and will consider adding new monuments, Stoney said. He suggested that commissioners might also consider adding explanatory signage, similar to those that now appear in national parks.

New Orleans recently removed three statues with Confederate figures and one monument to white supremacy. City workers in Orlando removed statue of "Johnny Reb" on Tuesday, to be relocated to a cemetery. Tampa officials decided Wednesday to keep a statue of Civil War soldiers, but add a mural displaying "love and diversity."

In Baltimore, where the former mayor put up signs calling its Confederate statues propaganda designed to support racial intimidation, the new mayor now hopes to remove the monuments and auction them off.

And tempers have run hot in Charlottesville, about an hour west of Richmond, where the city council voted earlier this year to remove a Lee statue, despite their mayor's preference for adding historical context instead.

A torch-wielding group that included prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer protested the decision at a rally in May, and the Ku Klux Klan has announced a rally for July.

Richmond is different from other cities because it has been working for decades to "diversify its landscape" and tell more of its stories, said Christy Coleman, CEO of Richmond's American Civil War Museum, who will serve as a co-chairwoman of the commission.

Still, she said, "We believe wholeheartedly that there is still more work to do."

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