East End Cemetery and “What Can and Can’t Be Said”

Robert E. Lee is laid to rest in Richmond’s East End Cemetery. The Veterans Administration headstone marks his military service in the 155th Depot Brigade in World War I. Lee died in 1964 and very little more can be found about him. His name alone is muted irony—Richmond’s Real Robert E. Lee; a man likely born and raised here, married here, reared children here, and died here. His headstone, recently revealed from beneath a blanket of English Ivy is a pebble compared to the giant granite of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue on Monument Avenue that thousands speed past daily among townhouses, churches, and fashionable restaurants. The black Lee’s name, and his grave, is an inversion of the dominant monumental landscape, and a claim to an authentic history of Richmond. He lies among roughly 13,000 other cemetery dwellers, laid to rest between the 1890s and the 1980s. In disrepair since the 1970s, the small graves succumbed to the ivy, grass, small trees shooting up and larger ones falling down.

I just finished reading Dell Upton’s What Can and Can’t Be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South. Upton examines how Civil Rights memorials are shaped by the “Western monumental tradition,” and “what is permitted to be said in contemporary American public discourse.”

He defines four preconditions on the memorialization of the Civil Rights movement in the American South. Really, they’re constraints. First, we live in an age of “the democratization of monument building,” wherein anyone can erect a monument, anyone can critique and oppose any such monument (in contrast to the elite prerogative of a previous age), and after Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, democratic—if not abstract—sculptural forms proliferate. Second, Civil Rights memorials are sited in proximity to older white supremacist monuments and instead of direct confrontation over the explicit racial messaging, policymakers “have worked out a convoluted ideology that I call dual heritage, which treats white and black Southerners as having traveled parallel, equally honorable paths. ‘White history’ and ‘black history have their own integrity and work out their Hegelian destinies independent of the other”—and thus the historical representation is marked by discomforting incongruity. Third, the politics of southern progressive urbanism and its developmental agenda in the context of personalism and localism ensure that monuments are neutered in their indictment of racial antagonism in the past and present. This precondition is exacerbated by the fourth—the political legacies of factions within the Civil Rights movement, and between them and activists outside the establishment. Some want to name the evil of white supremacy; others want to emphasize the aspiration to bourgeois racial uplift through struggle and endurance. The later usually prevails.

A further constraint is that we operate in an artistic tradition dominated by military monuments to individual heroes. A cause is vindicated, an enemy indicted, and masculine bravery celebrated. Yet the Civil Rights movement was a series of “ritual enactments of everyday life.” So we end up with monuments either to Martin Luther King, or the anonomyzed masses, engaged in a struggle against an evil not named, and for universal goals that all races can subscribe to. Compromise and aversion are prioritized, the reason for the struggle ignored.

What Can and Can’t Be Said is an easy read, and I’ve been thinking about its utility quite a bit more than I had anticipated when I picked it up. For instance, someone recently offered that adding a “Fearless Girl” element to Confederate monuments—such as defiant slaves at Davis’ statue or armed United States soldiers in opposition to Lee’s statue—might “transform those monuments from symbols of the Lost Cause into something entirely new and different.” “Fearless Girl” is a marketing effort by State Street Global Advisors to promote women in the financial sector, but has assumed grassroots popularity as a symbol of opposition to Wall Street capitalism and it’s embodiment of masculine values.

What makes Fearless Girl work? It is not a work that represents contemporary democratic monument building processes. It is marketing with a mission and thus needs no compromise (and needed only to last a month). Also, Fearless Girl and the Bull are weird hybrids of post-classical and post-heroic forms that are both very well rendered as heroic figures. They’re not didactic and wordy—a fault that Upton finds in most Civil Rights monuments—and the Girl is designed specifically to feed off the dynamic flow of the Bull. The Bull’s forward motion projects a gust over the defiant girl; her firm stance transforms the Bull’s potential power into a halting pause.

Monuments from the white supremacist era are powerful and present, and occasionally dynamic, but don’t invite interaction. Besides, have you seen figural sculpture in the classical style lately? Underwhelming. I wouldn’t trust this generation of sculptors to be able to produce an alternative in dynamic relationship that would appear as anything but out-of-balance and ham-fisted. (In fact, James Loewen offered some samples at the ACWM’s monuments symposium that, while, slightly tongue-in-cheek, would, if produced, possess rather inadequate gravitational pulls.)

But the proposals do offer one thing that transcends one of Upton’s preconditions. They name the evil. They position historical white supremacists (represented by the existing monuments) as the indicted losers. They overcome the artificial and uncomfortable dual heritage that he condemns. That’s reason enough to imagine that this will never happen: Upton’s third precondition—the democratic, pluralistic, compromise-building nature of the modern political culture that defines and manages monumentation will never allow it. (Unless, as in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, one ethno-political faction so dominates local politics that an agonistic landscape can emerge, unafraid of electoral backlash.)

Upton has high praise for Our Piece: Follow the Drinking Gourd, the imaginative and contingent memorial landscape to the enslaved at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. A monument rendered as wordless stones, a circle of trees, and an off-center dry-stacked wall mark African American mass graves. The simple assemblage rests in distant, but pointed relation to the gothic extravagance of the Jackson family graves to create both moments of tension and peaceful reflection.

For that reason, I’m utterly seduced by the opportunity offered by East End and Evergreen to grow as (but some of the potential) counterweights to Monument Avenue in the larger historical-imaginative landscape. Those thousands of graves are an archive of Richmond’s black middle and working class history. Bankers and newspaper editors are there. So are tobacco factory and hotel workers. You see the early benevolent burial associations like St. Luke’s; and after those passed on, you see the mid-century worker’s cooperatives that pooled money to pay for headstones. My favorite, of course, are the various Baptist Deacon’s associations and women’s auxiliaries represented on the stones.

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East End doesn’t overcome all of Upton’s preconditions, namely the fourth one. Certainly, it represents the historic black middle class struggle to sustain community and aspire to material prosperity while grappling with racial limits that whites imposed. The cleanup effort is increasingly supported by grants from the legislature and foundations, and in certain stylistic ways is different from the grassroots efforts of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project (and others) working to preserve and memorialize the Shockoe Valley slave market district, that adopt Afrocentric iconography and a bit more of an “outsider” and subversive aesthetic. But that’s ok. We’re talking about a municipal landscape, not a designated corner of a public park. There’s room. (Please note: these characteristics are drawn broadly and given shape more by seeing them through Upton’s analysis than through personal experience.)

But East End (and Evergreen) transcends Upton’s other preconditions. Both have the benefit of not being made new, of not being subject to design-by-committee and design-by-negotiation, and of not being an awkward and artificial addendum to existing memorials. They are not wordy or didactic places, either. Their elegance and power lie in their landscape, the ivy, the park-like woods, the grace of their stones, and the dignity of the stories they hint at. Their position on the landscape pointedly reflect Richmond’s segregated history: they overlook (and embrace) a pauper’s cemetery, and stand between a modern recycling plant and the manicured Confederate graves at Oakwood Cemetery on the opposite hill in a way that recalls environmental racism, municipal segregation, and the perseverance of the African American community. They don’t, in short, subscribe to a dual heritage because the landscape— and the very reason for their existence—unmistakably implies the hurt of racial segregation.

I know I’m getting a bit hyperbolic here, but I’d love to see a day when tourists to this city feel like they haven’t experienced it’s true history until they’ve driven right past Monument Avenue and right into East End and Evergreen, gotten out, and walked around.

[Addendum: these musings are those of a somewhat-outsider who is ill-informed about the efforts of descendants and volunteers who have toiled in recent years on East End and Evergreen. I, of course, defer to their priorities.]



2 thoughts on “East End Cemetery and “What Can and Can’t Be Said”

  1. A very interesting perspective on monuments and the commemorative landscape. As regards your closing question, much work (marketing and promotion) can and should be done to elevate these sacred places. I think the bigger challenge may be in interpreting and explaining how they should be experienced when visitors arrive at the site.

  2. I wonder if that explanation is necessary? These sites are rich enough that anyone can find meaning on their own. Certainly, though, the opportunities to draw out stories via brochures, walking tours, and digital apps are many.

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