Robert E. Lee, 'Race,' Representation and Redevelopment along Richmond, Virgnia's Canal Walk

By Leib, Jonathan I. | Southeastern Geographer, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Robert E. Lee, 'Race,' Representation and Redevelopment along Richmond, Virgnia's Canal Walk


Leib, Jonathan I., Southeastern Geographer


The past decade has witnessed numerous disputes concerning the South's symbolic landscapes. While many of these debates have centered on whether and where to add Civil Rights icons or remove Confederate ones, a debate took place in Richmond, Virginia in 1999 over whether to add a new Confederate symbol to the landscape of this African-American majority city. That year the city opened its new Canal Walk development project, aimed at revitalizing the city's waterfront. Among the historical displays along the Canal Walk was a large portrait of Robert E. Lee. The debate centered on whether Lee, "the white South's favorite icon, "should hang on the Canal Walk's floodwall, or whether the portrait should be removed because it represented an affront to African Americans as a reminder of the Civil War and slavery. The Lee mural dispute thus continues the debate in Richmond and the South over public memory, the Civil War, power, and symbolic landscapes.

KEY WORDS: symbolic landscape, 'race,' reputational politics, public memory, Robert E. Lee

INTRODUCTION

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, white Southerners commemorated the Confederate cause in the Civil War on the South's landscape. These landscape tributes ranged from the 60-ft tall monument of Robert E. Lee along Richmond, Virginia's Monument Avenue and Georgia's massive Stone Mountain carving of Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson to the nearly ubiquitous Confederate soldier monuments in court house squares, the naming of places after Confederate leaders, and roadside markers keeping Confederate memories alive (e.g., Widener 1982; Winberry 1983; G. Foster 1987; Gulley 1990, 1993; Savage 1994; O'Leary 1999; Essex 2002; Leib 2002). In the late-tweentieth century, African Americans in the South started challenging this white Confederate domination of the region's symbolic landscape in two ways: by seeking the removal of government sanctions for flying the most recognized Confederate symbol, the Confederate battle emblem, on state flags and in and over government buildings (e.g., Leib 1995; Leib, Webster, and Webster 2000; Leib and Webster 2002), and by beginning to commemorate the Civil Rights movement on the landscape through the erection of monuments, renaming of streets, and establishment of museums (e.g., Alderman 1996, 2000; Dwyer 2000; Leib 2002).

While most recent debates concerning the southern symbolic landscape have centered on whether and where to add Civil Rights icons or remove Confederate ones, a 1999 debate took place in Richmond, Virginia over whether to add a new Confederate symbol to the landscape of this now black majority city. (1) On 1 June 1999, a billboard-sized portrait of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was raised overlooking the centerpiece of the city's new Canal Walk redevelopment project, designed to revitalize Richmond's historic waterfront along the James River by providing a festival landscape to be lined eventually with shops, restaurants and condominiums. However, the next day (two days before the official opening of the Canal Walk) black city councilman Sa'ad El-Amin successfully demanded that the Lee mural be removed. He argued that it was inappropriate to place a portrait of the Virginia native in Richmond in general, or in his city council district specifically (also majority black) because Lee was a painful reminder to black Richmonders of the Civil War and the Confederacy's defense of slavery. The resulting vitriolic debate over the appropriateness of displaying the Lee portrait and protests by traditional white Southerners demanding the portrait be rehung divided the city.

This paper examines this debate over erecting a new Confederate memorial on the landscape of this former Confederate capital. The next section reviews the literature on 'race' and the southern symbolic landscape. Given the contrasting visions of Robert E. Lee presented by proponents and opponents of the mural, part three of the paper discusses the concept of reputational politics, reviews the role of Lee in (white) southern historical memory, and examines recent challenges to the Lee legend concerning his attitudes towards slavery. …

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