This week, I want to talk about a critical figure in Richmond history. Don’t glaze over just yet — yes, it’s history, but it’s definitely not the dry and dusty stuff!
I’m providing links to a number of supporting articles that I strongly encourage you to read as you go along. I’ve chosen not to pull excerpts or talk about the articles much; that’s deliberate, because I want you to go exploring and find out for yourself. Plan on taking about half an hour to read everything, if you read at average speed.
So here we go.
Richmond, Virginia, was founded in 1737. That’s nearly three hundred years ago. (283 years, if you’re being particular). It was started by Colonel William Byrd II. Now, Byrd was one of those rich, educated British-American types; he was a landowner and a lawyer, a writer and a businessman and a politician. He didn’t want royal governors to have more power. He pushed for smallpox inoculation. He was smart and witty and wrote some cool books. All good stuff.
He also treated his slaves like shit and fucked around like his dick would drop off if he didn’t get constant action. His wife dealt with her frustration over this by beating the crap out of any slaves she caught him fucking. Byrd beat his wife, too.
So Richmond was founded by a complete asshole. We’re clear on that, yeah? None of this “man of the times” nonsense. He was a complicated human being with good qualities and bad, but he treated people like things and abused his position of power any chance he had. That has always equaled asshole and always will.
It is very interesting to look at what different sites say about this guy. Some have a very brief, neutral presentation, like this, and this. And there’s a rather longer one here. Then there’s this stuff (that one’s a pdf).
In that selection of his diaries, he casually mentions beating his slaves and his wife over some pretty trivial transgressions. He explicitly mentions one sexual incident, very mildly worded (“I asked a [slave] girl to kiss me…”).
On the other hand, we have this article from the Paris Review, which found a series of rather more explicit quotes from, apparently, a very different section of his diaries than the one which the National Humanities Center used. And PBS has a brief but decisively sharp entry here.
Without looking at the actual diaries, I can’t speak to whether one quote or another is true. If you’re interested in hunting that down, you can start here.
This prompts the obvious question: At what point does a technically neutral presentation about a historical figure cross over into distorting facts and withholding critical information? If we focus only on his misdeeds, we miss the good he did in the world; but if we focus on the good, then we miss the massive amount of misery he inflicted by abusing his authority.
It’s an debate we’re still having today, almost three hundred years later. Whether it’s someone in the film industry, or a powerful modern politician, or a renowned author, where do we draw the line and turn away from respecting and honoring them for their achievements? How much damage does a person have to do in this world before we cast them out? Is there ever any coming back from being a complete shitheel?
And, bringing it back to a local perspective: Do we really want to have a park named after this guy? What did he actually do that’s worth being honored, all these years later, after how awful he was to so many people?
The park in question, William Byrd Park, had a statue of Christopher Columbus added in 1927. People at the time didn’t like that, because it honored a foreigner and a Catholic. There’s an interesting article about the history of that statue, and some good photos tracking the progression of its existence, here. The statue was vandalized multiple times over the past decade, as racial tensions flared up, but stayed up until 2020, when protesters finally just threw it into the lake.
Columbus was also a complete asshole, by the way. I won’t sidetrack to get into that right now, but here’s a link from History dot com to get you started if you find that statement at all controversial.
So, returning to the park: we have a piece of land that residents use constantly, named for a man who, by multiple historical accounts, would have seen the majority of the people out there enjoying their picnics and frisbee in terms of how much he would enjoy fucking them, beating them, or both. We have a statue in that park which reinforces that problematic history of seeing people as things and advancing one’s own political and personal power without regard to the pain it might cause others.
Is this really what we want to celebrate and commemorate, in 2020?
I have my own opinion. My opinion is no. I believe that we can find heroes to honor who are far more uplifting and appropriate. Mind you, I’m not calling for the park to change its name. I don’t find that particularly important, in the overall scale of things to push right now. I certainly wouldn’t oppose it, but unless it’s accompanied by actual on the ground social policy changes, it means very little.
I’m only asking that you, wondrous reader, please think about that question, about the history described above, and about the power of names. Think of what it means that the park was named after this guy, and the statue put in as well; think of what it says that most people don’t actually know about the history I’ve quoted above, and don’t give a rat’s ass about what some guy did three hundred years ago. Think about how long someone must be dead before the harm they did is erased and all that’s left is an empty halo.
Your opinion and interpretation of the facts may differ. Feel free to discuss this in the comments, or on Twitter; as I’ve said in my post about changes [insert link], I’m happy to have a debate about this. If you can actually disprove the charges made by the above linked articles, please do. If you think you can make a case for why those levels of horrid behavior aren’t really all that important, go for it.
Please do not sidetrack into “but the rioters smashed/set things on fire/unacceptable behavior!” Stick to the question, and to the points made in this post. Trust me, I have a post about the protests lined up for another day. Wait until that one lands.
Thank you for reading! And I’ll point out that as part of my changes, I now have a Ko-Fi. If you enjoyed this post and want to see more, please drop a dollar in the virtual hat. It would help a lot!