Wednesday, May 10, 2000
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Richmond City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin wants the city to stop funding the upkeep of the statues of Confederate war heroes on Monument Avenue, saying they are offensive to black residents.

"Any public support of any Confederate memorial on public property violates the rights of those who were once victimized by slavery," El-Amin said yesterday.

Sa'ad El-Amin

Sa'ad El-Amin

El-Amin, who was re-elected to council on May 2, said he intends to devote his two-year term to ridding Richmond of public monuments to Confederates and will first target the city's most historic street, Monument Avenue, the only boulevard in the nation to be declared a National Historic Landmark.

The city currently spends about $40,000 a year to maintain the statues it owns, said Angela Jackson-Archer, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. That includes lighting, some cleaning and touching up the paint.

Also, once every 10 years, the city spends between $8,000 and $9,000 per statue to completely clean and refurbish them, Jackson-Archer added.

Monument Avenue began in 1890 as an expansive area to surround a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Today it is one of the city's biggest tourist attractions, drawing people from around the nation and other countries.

The state owns and maintains the Lee monument. The other five statues are kept up by the city. They include tributes to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, generals Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, a naval officer and oceanographer.

El-Amin said he doesn't care how much money the avenue generates.

He said it's not right for the city to "subsidize a tribute to slavery." While he doesn't advocate removing the statues from the avenue, he said he wants a private source to step forward to take care of them.

"If you put a Nazi war memorial up, you'd attract a lot of people, too," he said. "You cannot use taxpayer dollars to support things that are hurtful to a significant cross-section of this community."

The most recent addition to Monument Avenue was made in 1996, when a statue of tennis star and Richmond native Arthur Ashe Jr. was built near Roseneath Road. The construction generated a lot of controversy, mostly among those who felt the Confederate row was not the proper place for the tribute.

El-Amin said he would exclude the Ashe statue from his request because, "Arthur Ashe's personal history isn't offensive to anyone."

El-Amin announced his plan while talking to a reporter from the Washington Times on May 4. Yesterday, he confirmed his statements and said he plans to bring the matter before the council after it is sworn in on July 1.

Mayor Timothy M. Kaine, whose 2nd District includes portions of Monument Avenue, said he doesn't think El-Amin will find support for his plan among his colleagues.

"I don't think he's serious," Kaine said. "I think he was just trying to get a good quote in an out-of-town newspaper."

Manoli Loupassi, who was elected to fill the seat being vacated by 1st District representative John A. Conrad, said he didn't want to comment on the issue. His district also includes sections of Monument Avenue.

"I haven't been sworn in yet, and I haven't had an opportunity to talk to anyone about it," Loupassi said. "I think, at a minimum, I should talk to Sa'ad."

Other council members expressed skepticism.

Joseph E. Brooks, who represents the 4th District, said he would be willing to listen if a private organization wanted to fund the monuments, but added it is ultimately the duty of the city to make sure they are in good repair.

"Monument Avenue is known worldwide," he said. "It presents the city with an enormous opportunity to attract tourism. We do not allow that kind of tourist attraction to slide into a state of disrepair."

Historic view of Monument Avenue

Historic view of Monument Avenue

Historic preservationists and groups that support Confederate heritage expressed outrage yesterday over El-Amin's comments.

Brag Bowling, 2nd Brigade Commander for the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said El-Amin was overstepping his bounds as a civic leader.

"Ending the funding for these monuments would be so counterproductive, it's ridiculous," he said. "The City Council would really be shooting itself in the foot."

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have clashed with El-Amin in the past. Last year, the councilman led a charge to have an image of Robert E. Lee removed from a collection of portraits on a downtown floodwall.

The picture was removed, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans launched a protest.

The images for the gallery were reviewed by the public and the City Council, and a new portrait of Lee -- without his Confederate uniform -- was suggested. The City Council finally voted to put the mural back on the wall. El-Amin was one of three council members who voted against it.

"If he thought that Robert E. Lee was tough, just wait until he takes on those monuments," Bowling added. "He can shake, rattle and roll all he wants, but I don't think he'll get very far with this."

Gail Zwirner, president of the Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation, said her organization doesn't have the money to pay for the upkeep of the statues if the city were to stop its funding.

She said she was disappointed by El-Amin's comments and hoped he would recognize the value of preserving an important piece of Richmond's history.

"There are other things besides the monuments that make Monument Avenue a historic street," she said.

But Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he supports El-Amin's stand.

"As a resident of the city, I sure don't approve of my tax dollars going to support those folks," he said.

Khalfani is embroiled in a showdown with Gov. Jim Gilmore over the commonwealth's designation of April as Confederate History Month. The NAACP has threatened a tourism boycott, similar to the one staged in South Carolina over the use of the Confederate flag.

Khalfani said he believes the recent events illustrate a wave of anti-Confederate sentiment building across the South. El-Amin's proposal is just the latest example, he added.

"I think you're seeing a shaking-up of that formerly sleeping giant," Khalfani said.

Return to Virginia Division Archives