Jefferson Davis Statue: Building a Better Understanding of Richmond’s History

This op-ed originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

By: Bill Martin, Director of the Valentine

The Valentine needs your help this summer. The Jefferson Davis statue from Monument Avenue is temporarily on display within our core exhibit, “This Is Richmond, Virginia,” while on loan from the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMVA).

The Valentine is committed to telling a complete story of our city, beyond just its well-known role in the Civil War. The Jefferson Davis statue — shown as it was when we last saw it in 2020 — is unique in its ability to explore so many aspects of Richmond history.

There are many voices around the events of 2020, and we need to hear them. Our mission is to collect, preserve and interpret Richmond stories, and that includes your opinions and ideas.

Like the graffiti left on the Berlin Wall after it was pulled down in 1989, this object showcases a crucial Richmond story at multiple points in time. It was erected as a pristine monument in 1907 and came down splattered in pink paint in 2020. Many different groups contributed in different ways to create the statue as it exists now, and the Valentine is committed to bringing together many different perspectives to build a future we all can be proud of.

This is not just about what happens to the statue. It is about how we can use this object and this moment to inform our future. Your responses to this exhibition will be provided to the city of Richmond as it moves forward with its planning for Monument Avenue, and to the BHMVA to inform the future of all Confederate monuments now in its care.

This significant work by Edward Valentine, the museum’s first president, will be shown in its unrestored form for the next six months. The reality is Confederate monuments have been removed, and there are a wide range of opinions about the events of 2020 that we hope to capture. We must use this moment to build a better understanding of history and figure out the best way forward — together.

There are a lot of difficult conversations ahead of us. So why would the Valentine exhibit this work? Wouldn’t it be easier to just leave the statue in storage?

The short answer is: Yes, it would. But we have a responsibility to focus on this particular object because of the Valentine’s own history and our commitment to telling the complete history of our region. As difficult as this is, we must.

The sculpture studio where Edward Valentine created the statue is located in the garden of the Valentine. Jefferson Davis came to this building in 1873 to have his face measured for a bust. Edward Valentine used those measurements three decades later, after Davis’ death, to create the statue for his monument.

Valentine used his clout and artistic skills to promote the Lost Cause — an effort after the Civil War that denied slavery’s central role in the conflict and glorified Confederates like Davis as heroes facing long odds. His legacy is part of our institution, and we must confront it with clear eyes.

Inside the Valentine, we’ve been talking about the prospect of bringing this statue back for a long time. In 2015, following the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., we committed to a series of exhibitions, programs and challenging conversations in our community.

We also committed to moving the Davis statue to the Valentine, should we get the chance. The Monument Avenue Commission even suggested this move.

Since then, we’ve gathered feedback on how to do this right through surveys, focus groups, events and more. One of those surveys showed us that 80% of you would prefer to see the Confederate statues in museums with appropriate context, rather than displayed in public spaces or destroyed. Now that the Davis statue is in our gallery, we need your input as we continue to move forward.

Your response to Valentine’s statue will provide important documentation of this important moment in Richmond history, begin to move these conversations forward and inform the reinstallation of the Edward Valentine Sculpture Studio, and other future programs and exhibitions.

We hope your summer plans will include a visit to the Valentine. The Valentine is committed to your story and the story of Richmond.

To make sure that everyone has an opportunity to weigh in, we now offer free admission every Wednesday for as long as Jefferson Davis is on display. We also are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you are not able to visit, please fill out this survey and send it along to friends. We look forward to the many important conversations to come.