I started writing the Willie Black mystery series back in 2010 after a long career of writing literary fiction (10 of those so far). Some of the first 10 Willies (all published by The Permanent Press) were based loosely on real events in the very real city of Richmond, where I live.
No. 11, though, was different. I started writing “Monument” (to be published in November, also by The Permanent Press) in the summer of 2020, as all hell was breaking loose in Willie’s home city. Civil War monuments were coming down, some removed by city officials, others dragged down by residents who’d finally seen more than enough aggrandizement of men who fought to preserve slavery. Black and white Richmonders banded together to ensure that Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury no longer loomed over us along the city’s iconic Monument Avenue.
It was easy setting a double homicide on Broad Street as buildings and cars burned in Richmond’s most woke summer. The Black Lives Matter movement inspired us to do away with some multi-ton chunks of hero-worship devoted to men who were traitors to the Union. The civil unrest got media play everywhere and gave “Monument” a national hook. (Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review last week.)
All that was left was Robert E. Lee, whose statue remained standing as apologists kept the matter tied up in the courts. The cover of “Monument” is a photo of Lee’s memorial in July 2020, its embattled pedestal adorned with graffiti.
Well, Lee is no more. On September 8, 2021, the 12-ton statue came down to cheers and chants. It was erected in 1890 to let Richmonders, and especially Black Richmonders, know that Dixie was alive and well 25 years after the Civil War ended. The wonder is not that all those Confederate statues are now gone, but that it took so long for it to happen. For more than a century, the images were such a part of the landscape that many of us hardly noticed them. Whites, even those of a liberal bent, never raised much of a hue and cry to take them down. They were just there, something to navigate around at traffic circles.
That’s how it is with revolutions. They don’t happen gradually. They don’t happen because people politely ask for respect. As Willie, a mixed-race guy with a Black father, says, sometimes people get tired of asking and just kick the door in.
Removing those monuments is not rewriting history. It is correcting history. No little Richmond kid, Black or white, will ever again be misled by grandiose statues into believing that the leaders of a rebellion based on the preservation of slavery are worthy of our adulation.
Willie Black, and the majority of Richmonders, say good riddance.
Howard Owen is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In November, his newest novel, “Monument,” will be published by The Permanent Press of Sag Harbor.