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In the American South, a sea change is under way, as places such as Richmond consider what to do with monuments honouring Confederate leaders. It's a polarizing debate for a polarized time, Joanna Slater writes, raking up the United States' deepest fissure – the legacy of slavery and the Civil War

Richmond’s Monument Avenue, seen in the 1920s, is lined by statues of Confederate leaders unveiled over a 40-year period.

Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley was 13 years old when he first saw Monument Avenue. His family was driving up to Washington and stopped in Richmond, where they visited the towering statues of Confederate leaders along the wide, tree-lined boulevard. In the version of history he absorbed as a child, these men were heroes.

At 46, Mr. Adams-Riley rejects that narrative entirely. Two years ago, he started a process to remove the remaining symbols from St. Paul's, the historic Episcopal church he leads in downtown Richmond that Robert E. Lee once attended. A number of church members left or withdrew financial support in response; Mr. Adams-Riley received "shrill" e-mails and phone calls accusing the church of erasing history.

Now, it is time for Richmond to wrestle with the same issues, he believes, starting with the monuments that line its most famous street. He is under no illusion it will be easy, but nor does he believe it is optional. "How could this city not be taking a serious, hard look at these monuments?" he says. "How can we have integrity and not grapple with this question?"

Across the American South, an unprecedented reckoning is under way as places such as Richmond struggle with whether to remove, change or leave statues erected to honour Confederate leaders. It is a polarizing topic for a polarized era, raking up the deepest fissure in U.S. history – the enduring legacy of slavery and the Civil War – at a time of bitter political division.

Perhaps nowhere is the discussion more complex than in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy and now capital of Virginia. Five statues of Confederate leaders unveiled over a 40-year period line Monument Avenue, a thoroughfare of elegant homes divided by a grassy mall. Now, Richmond is exploring a path that would adapt the monuments but fall short of removing them.

Levar Stoney, Richmond's newly elected African-American mayor, dove into the controversy in June. Some considered Monument Avenue the "third rail in Richmond politics," Mr. Stoney says in a recent radio interview – something that could never be touched or altered. But he says he believes the city now has a chance to "tell the complete truth" about monuments that are "the default endorsement of a shameful part of our history."

Richmond, which was once a major centre of the slave trade, is entering an already fraught discussion. In April and May, after a protracted legal battle, New Orleans removed four monuments, including statues of Confederate leaders and one honouring a white paramilitary group. In Charlottesville, Va., the city council voted earlier this year to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, although the plan is being challenged in court.

The Gen. J.E.B. Stuart Monument.

The counterreaction has been swift and furious. In Alabama, the state legislature enacted a measure in May preventing cities from moving monuments if they have been in place for more than 40 years. In Mississippi, which passed a law protecting monuments in 2013, a state legislator wrote in May that those who wanted to remove Confederate statues were "Nazi-ish" and called for them to be "lynched." He later apologized.

The push to reconsider Confederate monuments gained strength after nine black parishioners were killed in a historic church in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof in 2015. The killer embraced white-supremacist ideology and took pictures of himself with the Confederate battle flag. Less than a month after the shooting, South Carolina voted to remove the flag from the grounds of the state legislature.

In Richmond, Mr. Stoney is attempting a tricky balance. He announced the formation of a 10-member commission that will deliver recommendations to the city in the fall about the future of Monument Avenue, which is designated a national historical landmark. The commission's brief: to explore ways to add context to the current monuments and consider new individuals to honour – but not to weigh removing the statues.

The approach has earned him criticism from different quarters. For those who are vehement that monuments be left unchanged, adding context is akin to sacrilege. And for those who don't believe the monuments belong there at all, Mr. Stoney's strategy appears to be a dodge.

"We hope for civil discourse," says Christy Coleman, the co-chair of the commission and the chief executive of the American Civil War Museum. " Richmonders, generally, even when they're mad, there's a respect."

Others predict fireworks when the commission holds its public meetings, the first of which is scheduled for Aug. 9. Bill Gallasch, the president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, who has lived on the avenue for more than 20 years, says he expects an intense clash featuring an array of differing opinions.

It will be "hot and heavy," he says. "We're going to have huge, hot debates."

The Jefferson Davis monument.

A Rorschach test

It is a sultry July morning and B. Frank Earnest is standing in a navy suit and red tie in front of a giant statue of Robert E. Lee unveiled in 1890. The Confederate general sits astride his horse on a pedestal in the middle of a large, grassy circle. The only inscription on the statue is the word "Lee" in capital letters in bronze along one side of the pedestal. Small stone markers around the base note that the area is under 24-hour surveillance.

Mr. Earnest is the heritage defence co-ordinator for the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization for male descendants of soldiers who fought for the South in the Civil War. He drives a car decked out with the Confederate battle flag.

"You don't know how much they hate, loathe and despise Southerners like us who are still proud of our heritage," he says, just after likening "them" to Adolf Hitler. "They'd just as soon get rid of us."

"They" are the unnamed adversaries in what Mr. Earnest considers a politicized battle over U.S. history. He views the Confederate monuments as a Rorschach test. "Why is it we look at it and see birds and butterflies, and they see bats and spiders?" he asks. "Something is wrong with them."

Mr. Earnest believes that there should be no changes whatsoever to the hundreds of monuments honouring Confederate leaders and soldiers across the South. If Richmond decides to make additions to the statues on Monument Avenue – for instance, markers explaining the context in which they were created – the Sons of Confederate Veterans will explore legal options to block such a move.

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stands in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue.

The glorification of Confederate leaders in Richmond began decades after the end of the war and was part of the "Lost Cause" movement in the South, which minimized slavery as a cause of the conflict and cast Confederate leaders as heroic figures.

The period during which the five Confederate statues were erected – from the late 19 th to the early 20th century – was also a time when segregation was entrenched in the South, both through laws and violence, with the tacit sanction of the rest of the country. In 1902, for instance, Virginia mandated that schools be separated by race and instituted measures to prevent blacks from voting.

"I see terrorism, I see a way to frighten," says Free Egunfemi, an independent historian and activist, of Richmond's Confederate monuments. "I look at it through the lens of what they intended at the time, which was to be able to establish supremacy."

Ms. Egunfemi, 43, started an initiative called Untold RVA ("RVA" is shorthand for Richmond, combining the first letter of the city's name with the initials for Virginia). It works to increase awareness of lesser-known chapters of the city's history and share them with a wider audience through tours, training and public art.

Ms. Egunfemi disagrees with the mayor's decision to exclude removal of the statues from the city's deliberations. "The idea of not taking them down is like saying we're not going to dismantle the systems of oppression either, only make modifications to them," she says.

Old business

In some ways, Richmond has been preparing for the coming debate over Monument Avenue for years.

One thing that distinguishes the city from a number of other communities, says Ms. Coleman of the American Civil War Museum, is that for some time now it has had conversations – often difficult ones – about who gets memorialized and how. Most famously, in 1996, a statue of tennis legend and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was added to the northwest end of Monument Avenue, although the choice of location remains the subject of controversy (again, for distinct reasons in different quarters).

Currently, the city is holding a series of consultations about a memorial park in Shockoe Bottom, an area of the city that was home to its most notorious slave jail. Richmond was the second-largest centre of the slave trade in the United States, after New Orleans, in the decades before the Civil War.

The Maggie Walker statue. JOANNA SLATER/The Globe and Mail

On a recent afternoon, Morrell Morgan and his friend, Patricia Beckwood, braved the heat to visit Richmond's newest monument, which was inaugurated in July. It is a statue and small plaza downtown devoted to Maggie Walker, the first African-American woman to charter a bank in the United States, and a Richmond native who worked throughout her life to empower the black community.

Ms. Beckwood, 53, was practically vibrating with happiness. "It's the first statue I ever really wanted to come and see," she says. "I know who she is and all the things she accomplished for us."

Mr. Morgan, 29, recalls how he used to ride up and down Monument Avenue with his father, a history buff. "A hundred per cent, add more context," he says of the current debate. But he doesn't believe the monuments should be removed. "My perspective is, it's a part of history. We need to know where we came from."

Gregg Kimball, the co-chair of the Monument Avenue Commission and director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia, says whether the monuments should stay or go is a decision for individual communities to make. As a historian, he adds, it is clear that "landscapes change all the time." Monument Avenue is "literally this giant outdoor museum," he says. "Why not create a robust interpretation around it?"

Mr. Adams-Riley of St. Paul's church is among those who believe that preserving the status quo on Monument Avenue is not an option in today's Richmond. He likes the idea of adding more contextual information to the monuments but also of finding artistic ways to confront them. As an example, he cites the sculpture of a little girl that was placed in front of Wall Street's famous bronze bull, creating an interplay between the statues with an element of defiance.

Meanwhile, he continues the work closer to home. The removal of Confederate symbols at St. Paul's kicked off a five-year initiative to plumb the church's history and explore ways to incorporate it into the present. One of the items on the agenda: a memorial to the enslaved men who built the church's current home, which was completed in 1845.

"We're not interested in history for history's sake, we're interested in bringing reconciliation and healing to the world," he says. As Americans, "we've got old business – and a lot of it is still left to do."