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'How the Monuments Came Down' Filmmakers On Why Lee Statue Didn't Come Down Sooner


Robert E. Lee lost the Civil War, and now his statue has lost its place on Richmond's Monument Avenue. A pair of filmmakers tells the story of why both those things matter.

HANNAH AYERS: We made the film to expose why the monuments were built in the first place, why they stood for so long and how those monuments are indicative of decades and generations of policies and practices that dehumanized Black lives and, crucially, how Black people were resistant to them before the first one even went up.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hannah Ayres and Lance Warren are husband and wife and filmmaking partners. Their new documentary is called "How The Monuments Came Down."

KELLY: Now, to understand the monument story, they say you have to dig into the history of African Americans in Richmond; their independence, practicality and knowing that if they want to make change, they will need to pick their moments and work together; from navigating life during Reconstruction to pushing back against segregated streetcars to deciding which battles to pick and win. Here's Hannah Ayres.

H AYERS: I think the crux of the film can be embodied in a quote from Chuck Richardson, who was a former city council member. He was part of the first Black-majority city council in the 1970s. And he notes...


CHUCK RICHARDSON: I mean, we could point to a Chuck Richardson or a Levar Stoney or a Doug Wilder or a Henry Marsh, but we didn't do it. None of us stood up and said the statues have got to go. The politicians followed the people.


H AYERS: And that really became the whole theme of the film - is that it's people power. It's the point when people come together in a coalition to demand change that change actually can happen. That ended up being a whole thread of the film that we can trace back to the 1904 streetcar boycott, when Black residents decided they - Black residents heeded the calls of leaders like John Mitchell Jr. and Maggie Lena Walker to boycott the streetcar and for two years walked to work, to home, to their errands no matter what the weather.

This was in 1904, during Jim Crow, at the height of lynching and racial violence. And yet they had the courage to boycott the streetcar. That was people power. That was mobilization of everyday folks who took it upon themselves to see out that change.

LANCE WARREN: I agree with all of that. And I think the - a line that sticks with me - one of several, one that I find myself quoting to other people - is from Joseph Rogers, this four-times great-grandson of James Apostle Fields, who Joseph says late in the film - he says, so the statues have come down.


JOSEPH ROGERS: The monuments still remain. So we have to make sure we're taking down not just the visible statues, but the actual monuments and legacy of white supremacy in our city.

WARREN: And you can see that through challenges with schools, with housing, with access to food and in a safe way and all sorts of ways. It reminds us that the statues on their own are one thing. The ideas that put them up, that sustained them, that's another thing. And they are still affecting the lives of Richmonders every day.

H AYERS: Before last summer, I never thought I would see the statue of Robert E. Lee come down. The monuments were so entrenched in the city's public landscape. And the fact that they hadn't come down even after the murders in Charleston, even after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, it felt like there was such a stagnation.

And of course, there were plenty of people who said this is not what we should be focused on. And I respect those views, too - that the statue is unfortunate and it symbolizes all kinds of horrendous things, but let's focus on matters of social justice that are shaping the lives of people growing up in Richmond today.


RICHARDSON: One day after I got elected, someone from Atlanta, a newspaper, called and said, Mr. Richardson, what are you all going to do about the statues? And at that time, we had such a plate full of issues - housing, transportation, education, unemployment - that the statues were not on the top item of our plate.

WILLIE DELL: Robert E. Lee is dead. It ain't him I got to worry about. It's the racists living and sitting across from me at council.

H AYERS: Once the - once everything transpired last summer though, it felt to - at a certain point, it felt like the removal was inevitable. It was just a matter of getting it through the court system.

WARREN: Before last summer, I never thought I would see the statue of Robert E. Lee come down. And I suppose in many ways that's because of how Richmond had made Lee and made confederates more broadly a core part of its image. You know, after the Civil War, Richmond modernized. It sought to march into the 20th century, and it did that while also creating Monument Avenue, while planning it out.


ED AYERS: It's of enormous scale, and it'll be one of the calling cards of Richmond, which it becomes for the next century; a place that people would come to Richmond to see how you would combine modern real estate development and veneration for a lost cause.

WARREN: It really baked that white supremacy into its DNA, and so it did seem unlikely that it would happen. And we have to keep in mind that even as the governor declared that the monument would come down last summer, it only actually came down roughly 14 months later. It's one indication of how the power that has kept those statues up is deeply entrenched, and it takes a lot of pushing and wrangling and protest and policy and apparently court maneuvering to get over those rules.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We are here, and we're strong.

MELODY BARNES: What we really have to do is the hard work of getting at the root of what they symbolized, to dig that root out and to address those issues; that we address our housing issues, that we address the food insecurity issues, that we ensure that every child here can go to Richmond Public Schools and can be proud of that, can get the kind of education that they deserve so that they can fulfill their wildest dreams. That's what I really hope for this city, and that will be the best possible monument that we can have to who we should be as a community.

FADEL: That's Melody Barnes, a Black resident of Monument Avenue. She's one of dozens of voices that tell the story of Richmond in the documentary "How The Monuments Came Down."

KELLY: The film was made by Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers, and you can stream it at PBS.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MERLE HAGGARD'S "NEWS BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.