VCU students, professors say monument honoring black Union troops would improve inclusivity

Protesters hold anti-Confederate signs by the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue in August 2018. CT File Photo

Naomi Ghahrai, Contributing Writer

Many VCU professors and students say the construction of a monument honoring black troops who fought for the Union would improve Richmond’s goal of becoming more inclusive, supporting Richmond City Council’s endorsement of funding for the statue.

Honor the 14 Foundation is pushing for the construction of this new monument honoring the 14 soldiers who earned Medals of Honor for serving in the U.S. Colored Troops Regiment of the Union Army. The foundation is leading the fundraising efforts for this privately funded monument to be called Forgotten 14.

The 14 black Union soldiers were part of two regiments that overtook Confederate troops in the Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico in 1864, which was part of the Siege of Petersburg during the Civil War. Other Union forces hadn’t been successful in overtaking the same Confederate troops.

African American studies professor Travis Harris said it’s important to recognize the role black people played in saving the Union during the Civil War.

“What Blacks involvement in this war points to is the fact that slavery ended because of the work and the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of Black people,” Harris said in an email. “Blacks were abolitionists. They rebelled. Blacks organized with their African family. They fought the system of slavery in multiple ways. Their fight with the union is a part of the work they have been doing to get free.” 

Junior chemistry major Christine Nguyen supports the Forgotten 14 monument, which would be located on Monument Avenue, and calling it a step toward needed change.

“I think the monument honoring the African American soldiers in the Civil War would be a great addition to Monument Avenue to counter the monuments honoring the Confederacy,” Nguyen said. “Richmond needs change, and this monument is a good step towards that change.” 

Donald E. King, senior partner at McGuireWoods law firm and board member of the American Civil War Museum, initiated this endeavor and founded Honor the 14 Foundation.

“I think it would be wonderful for these heroes to be celebrated,” King told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “And I think it would do a lot of good for the city to include that part of the story on Monument Avenue.”

He decided to introduce this idea to Councilwoman Kim Gray given her success in renaming the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Gray proposed the appropriation of $5,000 toward Honor the 14 Foundation’s efforts.

“I think this is an opportunity to have a very powerful and unifying moment for our city that will continue to tell more of the untold stories,” Gray told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Current Virginia law forbids the removal of war memorial monuments, including those representing the Confederacy or Union. In January, Richmond City Council asked the General Assembly for authority over Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 183, which would allow localities to choose whether to remove war memorials if it passes the House and is signed by Gov. Ralph Northam. The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue is owned by the state and would not be affected.

Raven Witherspoon, a junior physics major, said the Union monument would be a “powerful statement” but does not change the meaning of existing Confederate statues in Richmond. 

“I think the proposed Forgotten 14 monument is a powerful statement about the value of black Union soldiers and a commemoration of their fight for freedom, but it does little to assuage the concerns of black citizens who are marginalized by the continued existence of Monument Avenue,” Witherspoon said. “Adding statues that feature black people cannot erase the implicit message of the original monuments: ‘You do not belong here.’” 

Sarah Beetham, an art history professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who specializes in the study of Civil War monuments, said the addition of contemporary art has been important to the debate over Confederate statues.

“While awaiting a decision on the legal issue, contemporary works of art, including Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the proposed statue to African-American troops, do important work to reconfigure Richmond’s memory landscape,” Beetham said in an email.

According to The Washington Post, there were 1,741 Confederate monuments in the U.S as of 2019. Forty-three percent of the monuments are statues, and there are more than 100 in Virginia.

African American studies professor Adam Ewing said monuments are “living reflections of our community values.” 

“In this sense they are very important,” Ewing said. “They are political statements, deriving from political will, which reflects the power of a constituency to have its story heard and its interests acknowledged.”

The current plan is to construct the new memorial on Monument Avenue either at the Meadow Street or Allison Street intersection.

“Slavery ended in the United States because of the bravery, sacrifice, and determination of enslaved and free African Americans,” Ewing said. “Celebrating African American troops — many of whom escaped slavery before enlisting to destroy the institution — pays tribute to this legacy.”

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