Spring 2021


katelyn hestad

Monuments have long been considered one of the primary indicators of a modern city. They are there not only to honor a memory, but to define and claim a space. In architecture and urbanism, this can negatively impact how a person or group of people feels welcome in a space. Public spaces should foster community, not deter it. A monument should not so much be an indication of the present, but rather a reminder of the past. A current debate surrounds the status of monuments erected in the past that depict now-disgraced figures, such as leaders of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

One such prominent example is the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, which gained national attention for its vandalization during the BLM protests in the summer of 2020. Those in support of the statue staying claim that without it, we would forget the history it represents and be more likely to repeat it. Although monuments are designed to remind us of origins we may tend or want to forget, it also can set a dangerous precedent. There is a fine line between a reminder and a representative. Those opposed to the monument staying argue that such a negative historical figure has no place being honored by such a large monument and want it gone so that it can be replaced by a more fitting representation of the space.

I propose that should it be torn down, a monument of Mary Bowser should go up in its place. Though there are many cries for a monument of prominent Civil Rights activists to go there, I thought the monument should still be a figure relevant to the space (the city of Richmond), while more thoughtfully depicting the current sentiment of people today through still a figure of historical import (from the Civil War era).

Mary Bowser, also known as Mary Jane Richards or Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was a freed slave turned Union spy from Richmond, Virginia. Given the nature of her occupation during the war, not much is known about her. However, what we do know about her indicates that in addition to gathering intel she was dedicated to educating other newly freed slaves and young black children. Her contributions to the Union’s efforts in the Civil War, and personal ties to the city of Richmond itself, make her a fitting replacement on Monument Avenue and one that would foster community, not divide it. 

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