The steely skies over Richmond, former capital of the confederacy, deepen the green of burgeoning spring. Hollywood Cemetery meanders under a canopy of ancient trees. Small confederate flags, freshly placed by the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, flutter in the breeze like eerie markers of death. The cemetery, which receives both state and local funding, is so immaculately cultivated that, upon entering its sprawling 130 acres overlooking the James River, a sign prohibits the laying of artificial flowers at its graves. The site claims this confederate cemetery is, after all, a “national treasure.”
Standing among a sea of brightly colored umbrellas among a group from Hope United Church of Christ, I behold the final resting place of two U.S. Presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler, as well as the grave of the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. We’re here on a racial justice field trip grappling with histories and representations by visiting a confederate cemetery, two historical African American cemeteries, Richmond’s infamous Monument Avenue, St. Paul’s Episcopal church (whose sanctuary features plaques dedicated to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis), and the home of Maggie L. Walker, now maintained by the National Park Service. Our ragtag crew includes youth and children—an infant, even, braving the rain like a champ—and reflects the racial diversity present at Hope on any given Sunday. More than thirty of us endure the soggy conditions following a week of interminable rain to learn more, affirming the truth of the trip’s name: Love Isn’t Timid.
Our tour guide swathed in a clear plastic rain bonnet informs us that Jefferson Davis’ wife herself never believed in the confederacy. Indeed, she is known to have said that “the South did not have the material resources to win the war; her husband was unsuited for political life; and perhaps women were not the inferior sex and it was unwise to deny them suffrage before the war.” And yet, raised in the slave state of Mississippi, eighteen years younger than her husband, and pregnant with their fifth child, Varina Howell Davis assumed her official duties as First Lady of the confederacy, falling into a long line of white women who, to this day, act against their conscience and common sense when it comes to mixing politics and race. I wondered, standing beside the grave of her five-year-old son killed when he broke his neck falling from the balcony of the confederate presidential mansion, how she swallowed her regret in the long years that followed.
Hollywood Cemetery features a rugged, 90 foot dry-stacked granite pyramid constructed fittingly by prisoners as a memorial to the confederate dead. The capstone, the largest triangular slab, was placed by a particularly strong convict who scaled the massive pyramid in order to guide it into place. At one point along the tour, a couple sprawls on the hill, taking in the James River as if the cemetery were simply a recreational park. If the optics here are ornate greenery and fluttering confederate flags, the engagement is purely informational as we trudge from one part of the cemetery to the next, gaining facts and figures. Where, I wonder, is the lament? At one point I pause to breathe deeply to avoid dropping to my knees in utter despair. In public settings like Hollywood Cemetery, however, we’ve mostly mastered the art of sealing off everything below the head when we talk about the Civil War and representation of the history of a nation built on the backs of the stolen and enslaved.
Next, we drive along Monument Avenue, where my spouse once ran a marathon. At the time, I confess I had no idea who was featured among the monuments but enjoyed being in this “beautiful” part of Richmond that felt so...well, historic. In fact, the statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse (like some Roman soldier from Jesus’ era) is so ridiculously high that even craning my neck, I cannot glimpse it from the backseat as we drive by.
The “Lost Cause” ideology, explored in the “The Spin” episode of the podcast Uncivil (which we listened to before the tour), drove the confederate monument-building frenzy throughout the south. In response to the threat of burgeoning black political and economic power, this effort to re-write history claimed the confederate cause as upholding the Southern way of life against their oppressor from the North, the federal government, who wanted to strip them of their livelihood. In Lost Cause lore, confederate soldiers, epitomized in Lee, are glorified as possessing the same courage of Old Testament heroes such as Moses and Abraham. Slavery is recast as a benevolent, divinely inspired institution—perhaps a little paternalistic, but ultimately for the good of the wayward slave. But the most dangerous tenant of the Lost Cause narrative is that the Civil War was not really about slavery.
Promoting the Lost Cause with religious fervor were the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who raised the money to erect the statues placed throughout the south—the very same statues we’re arguing about today. The UDC’s devotion to the Lost Cause was so zealous that they turned it into a catechism foisted upon southern children. This they rolled out alongside new textbooks approved by a committee dedicated to rejecting any rendering of history “unjust to the South.” Through the UDC’s work, a whole generation of white children were weaned on internalized racial superiority. It’s no surprise, then, that they went on to lead the charge for Jim Crow segregation.
In other words, in the hands of the UDC, the Lost Cause ideology generated the placement of confederate monuments in prominent public spaces all over the south while brainwashing an entire generation of young southerners. Meanwhile, white folks like myself stroll down Monument Avenue marveling at the sites without bothering to even understand what they represent. Thankfully, heightened public discourse is currently challenging the uncritical acceptance of these statues, memorials, and public spaces dedicated to the confederacy.
Our next stop brings us to the East End and Evergreen Cemeteries, historic African American cemeteries being restored one plot at a time. The disparity between the Hollywood and East End/Evergreen is palpable in every way. One looks like an overgrown forest beaten back for several yards with decrepit grave markers in various stages of restoration, the other like a cultivated public garden a la Fredrick Law Olmstead. And yet, the moment my feet touch the green ground at East End, a spirit overwhelms me with what I can only describe as reverence. I feel the people buried there were not merely venerated, they were loved. The sacred spirit of resilience permeates the place.
At East End, the rain pours down in sheets, and despite my rain jacket, everything below its hem is soaked to the core, including my pants, hiking shoes, and socks. Like a child delighting in a torrential rain storm, I stride directly through puddles. The rain makes real the commitment of the volunteers working at East End and Evergreen every single Saturday. On their hands and knees they uncover new grave markers and enter the information into an online register. Their work enables those searching for loved ones to find where they are buried. Along with the grave markers, the volunteers uncover stories that were never meant to survive. Stories of the fierce spirit, intellectual rigor, and creative brilliance of the first generation of freed women and men. Here, then, we glimpse American ingenuity and survival against all odds—yet these graves have been systematically neglected and left to rot; some have been desecrated over and over again. The cemeteries receive no public funding despite ongoing attempts to secure it.
Buried at Evergreen is Maggie L. Walker, the embodiment of black dignity that disproves everything the United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to perpetuate. The home of Maggie Walker, now maintained by the National Parks Service with the blessing of her family, contains within its walls the love, tragedy, and problem-solving that transformed her into the first African American woman to rise to the position of bank President. Her revolutionary notion that African Americans throughout the south needed a banking system of their own, insurance, and social uplift inspired over 5,000 people to gather in Richmond for her funeral in 1934, the largest such service since the confederate leaders were buried.
At the end of tour, in the lobby of the National Parks Service, I stumble upon a book with a familiar cover. Freedom Train, the story of Harriet Tubman, changed my life when I read and reported on it in the 4th Grade. It grounded me in the history of enslavement as told through the eyes of America’s greatest freedom fighter, who carried hundreds along the Underground Railroad into freedom. Though I often recalled the book, I had long since forgotten its title. As I finish the day’s tour, its familiar cover shouts to me from across the room: the stories of history must be told by those who live with their backs against the wall. I purchase a copy for my boys, but also for myself—so I can remember the child in me awakened to the rich lives of black folks and their tremendous contributions to the heart and soul of our nation.
With the opening of the lynching memorial in Montgomery; with the recent spate of white people compulsively calling the police when black people simply try to live their lives, I’ve considered the legacy of crocodile tears. White women’s tears have formed the river where black, lynched bodies were cast off to rot. White women’s tears still generate the hysteria that unleashes disproportionate force and police brutality on black children, youth, and adults. Their crocodile tears funded the memorials we now must topple if we are to tell the truth about the history of our nation.
In Richmond, I turn over in my mind the shadowy connection between those crocodile tears and the dearth of true lament over the legacy of slavery. For my Yankee siblings, let me add—not just slavery and segregation, but also the fugitive slave act, redlining, institutional disparities, police brutality—the messy legacy of racism that infuses the north as well as the south. When do we lament these grave sins? Where is the sacred space that invites us to fall to our knees, confess our soul-sickness, and begin repair? Perhaps white denial of the festering wound of internalized superiority keeps us in crocodile tears. All I know is that it will require more than tours, facts, and challenging questions to truly account for the misrepresentations that profligate our public spaces and the disparities that riddle our institutions. To truly account for the brutality and hatred, we must move into the deeper waters where our souls reckon with all that we’ve done and left undone, all that we’ve lost as the blood of God’s children cries out from the ground.