The sun was low on a Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis cupped the blood red light in his outstretched hands as he orated to the throng. He remained immortal, the Gamecock of the South, ol' one-eyed Jeff with his chronic eye infection, possibly from herpes.
No one's sure.
Drivers, oblivious to his oratorical showmanship, jerked around the awkward statuary that surrounded him in a semi-circle of columns. Eleven for the Confederate states and two for Kentucky and Missouri. Both sent delegates to the Confederate Congress, but had neither were able to completely commit to the cause.
It was a terrifically symbolic gesture, to be sure, but not enough to win a war.
In front and in back of Davis, an elegant traffic median extended as far as his one eye could see.
A Migos song reverberated against the weathered marble.
High above Davis, a woman held a torch aloft. Her name, "Vindicatrix", was etched below her billowing robes.
But who, truly, was vindicated?
Monument Avenue is a historic road. A charmed road, even. For two dazzling miles it championed the high ideals of a now lost, more genteel South. Opulent manors and stately apartments front a wide, pleasant street, in stark contrast to the crowded tenements and narrow alleys that characterized the old North.
Asters, lilies, and daisies bloom on immaculately landscaped lawns. Architecturally, the street revived almost every imaginable style, from Gothic and Georgian to Spanish and Greek. Many homes were graced with generous porches and balconies for socializing on pleasant evenings.
And, of course, there was a monument to a wily Civil War hero about every few blocks. The street earned had its namesake.
The dramatic avenue was a product of City Beautiful Movement that was transforming the nation after 1893's World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Classical concepts of beauty again dictated the urban form, for better or worse - usually for better. Grand boulevards and monuments to civic life radically altered the appearance of America's cities, virtually overnight.
Richmond chose to put its own civic heart and soul into Monument Avenue. The late 1800s and early 1900s were a proud, nostalgic time for the city, flush as it was with fragrant tobacco money. Indeed, the first residents of Monument Avenue were executives and socialites, lawyers and philanthropists. They vacationed frequently, entertained guests with balls and galas, and had black maids, servants, and nannies to tend to the children. All paid, mind you.
"Monument Avenue was magical for all of us," Roberta Bryan Bocock wrote in Monument Avenue Memories, a cloying book of childhood reminisces from former and current Monument Avenue residents.
It was the long twilight of the Gilded Age, and it was hard not to feel like Bocock if you happened to be on the right side of history.
Five memorials to different Confederate were unveiled in the span of a few decades, honoring Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Jefferson Davis. The bronze statues sat - as a rule - in the center of the street, defiant even in death.
A testament not to slavery, we're told, but freedom and states' rights.
It was, however, a fleeting moment. By 1960s, Monument Avenue had changed. The neighborhood, like many formerly elite urban neighborhoods, was no longer fashionable. The suburbs had arrived en masse.
Monument Avenue diversified. Middle class whites and blacks moved in to replace the Southern gentry. It was, in many ways, a good thing.
In the mid-1990s, Monument Avenue's final monument was dedicated. It was a memorial to Arthur Ashe, an African-American Richmond native and tennis phenom that had died from AIDS in 1993 (and had never served in the Civil War).
The new monument was, to say the least, controversial. One local told me he thought it was "tacky", that it looked like the emaciated Ashe was "beating kids with his tennis racket." Its location, on the cheaper and less distinguished end of Monument Avenue, was also notable.
It's easy to be a critic, but I think the sentiment behind the Ashe monument was right on the money. It recast Monument Avenue, somewhat, as a more inclusive reimagining of the city's rich and troubled past. Today, Monument Avenue is a hip, "gentrified" neighborhood, so it's nice to see a black man similarly celebrated.
Would Jefferson Davis agree? I'd like to hope so. After all, it was Davis that once said:
"To one who loves his country in all its parts, it is natural to rejoice in whatever contributes to the prosperity and honor and marks the stability and progress of any portion of its people."