Siting the Past/Projecting the Future: Public Debate and Richmond’s Landscape of Memory

Brian Katen and Cermetrius Bohannon

 

David Buege has recognized that “after language, landscape is the fundamental medium of American public, and therefore popular, discourse.” This centrality of landscape in our collective imagination has never been more evident than in today’s ongoing American debate regarding Confederate memorials, monuments to the Lost Cause, and the public display of the Confederate Battle Flag. Fundamental, reflective questions of propriety and the appropriateness of these symbols in their respective landscape settings are the focus of public discussions throughout the country. The presence of these highly charged symbols in shared landscape settings, characterized by one editorialist as “instruments of racial terror,” pose a significant dilemma for individuals and public and private institutions alike.

 

Removal from the public realm of these symbols of the Confederacy and the recognition of those who served the Confederacy has been one proposed solution to this dilemma. But the multiple discourses and perspectives that are propelling public debate challenge simple, expedient solutions. How then to acknowledge the extraordinarily complex history of these cultural symbols and the conflicting readings of the past and aspirations for a collective future embedded within them. What do we need to understand and what constructive dialogues can emerge from our understandings to inform potential resolutions to the dilemma posed by these divisive symbols? This paper focuses upon the study of the civic, memorial landscape of Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy and the capital of today’s vibrant Commonwealth, provides a unique laboratory for the study and understanding of the genesis and evolution of America’s commemorative landscape of the Civil War. Here, Civil War memorials and monuments became a central element in the creation, organization, and evolution of the city’s civic infrastructure – an infrastructure that has begun to demonstrate a remarkable and, at times, contested transformation in recognition of past injustices, long-standing grievances, and ever-evolving values. Might the continued transformation of Richmond’s landscape of memory inspire new discussions and negotiations – an unending dialogue that values the complexity of collective memory and varied perspectives and interpretations to provide a deeper understanding of our shared history and collective future?

 

Through the use of qualitative methods, including discourse analysis of period and contemporary published sources and coverage in Richmond’s white and black press, deep mapping, and analytical mapping using GIS, a more complete understanding of the consequences of removal or retention of these powerful symbols in a multicultural city of the 21st century will emerge.

 


 

Brian Katen is an Associate Professor in the Landscape Architecture Program, School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. His research centers on the archival and liminal dimensions of landscape and the persistence and materiality of memory in everyday, vernacular, and ephemeral landscapes. His current work is focused on understanding and documenting the trace record of Virginia’s African American landscapes during the eras of Jim Crow and segregation.

 

C.L Bohannon is an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture. He holds a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, a Master of Landscape Architecture from Virginia Tech, and a Ph.D. in Architecture & Design Research from Virginia Tech.