RICHMOND, Va. — History is written by the victors. But in this city and others across the South, losers did most of the writing--leaving behind marble and bronze memorials celebrating the vanquished Confederate soldiers, generals and politicians of America's Civil War.
Now, 135 years after that conflict ended, the winners are beginning to write some history of their own, while trying to remove vestiges of a racist and oppressive past.
In Richmond, where statues of Confederate generals proudly stand on a tree-lined avenue, black leaders have fought successfully to rename two bridges--once graced by the names of Confederate generals--after civil-rights leaders.
Last year, they forced city officials to remove a uniform-clad mural of Robert E. Lee from a public display and replace it with a photograph of Lee in civilian clothes. In 1996, they won their most publicized victory by erecting a monument to tennis legend and Richmond native Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue, alongside the memorials to Confederate generals.
Black leaders have plans for a statue of a civil-rights lawyer who helped desegregate Virginia's schools and for a monument (resembling the Vietnam Memorial) that recalls the suffering of slaves.
After years of living in the shadows of the Confederate memorials, blacks say they now have the confidence to start telling their own slice of history.
"It is time to tell the invisible story," says Charles Bethea, executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. "There's definitely an imbalance. There are more Confederate icons and namesakes."
The way to rectify this imbalance, he says, is for blacks to start creating their own edifices.
That change has not come without conflict.
In recent months, someone torched the Lee mural and defaced his large statue on Monument Avenue with graffiti. Public hearings concerning the renaming of the bridges became quite heated. Some think the tension will only grow.
"Richmond is shaping up to be a battleground," says Brag Bowling, Richmond-area brigade commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "What they are doing is trying to deny that a certain history ever occurred. All over the South, a political correctness is taking hold, which doesn't study history but deals in symbols."
Confederate memorials far outnumber those commemorating blacks in a city that is now more than 55% black. But Richmond once served as the capital of the Confederacy, and it is that past that is recalled.
Blacks have few monuments. Besides the Ashe monument, statues commemorate a famous tap-dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and a black entrepreneur, Maggie L. Walker. Richmond does not have a street named after civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
So when the city erects anything else that depicts the Confederacy--the Lee mural, for example--blacks say they feel slighted.
Earlier this year, hoping to avoid further confrontations over the issue, city officials established a committee to set up guidelines for spending public money and naming public monuments.
Most historians say they don't want the Confederate statues removed or other streets and bridges renamed. But they wouldn't mind seeing more monuments to blacks and other minorities who have received less notice in history books.
"These voices have not been heard in the past," says Charles F. Bryan Jr., director of the Virginia Historical Society. "That doesn't mean you erase or tear down old statues. As you move forward, you recognize other members of the community."
Some argue that erecting statues to blacks and renaming bridges will do little to change perceptions, so long as most people pay little attention to names.