Student Research Surveys Impact of Monument Avenue’s Confederate Legacy

News Story categories: Black Studies Sociology and Anthropology
Tristen Craig with Dr. Sarah E. Cribbs

Tristen Craig ’24 (sociology, black studies) grew up near Fredericksburg, Virginia, just off a highway that until this year bore the name of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states. Around the corner from her home sat Robert E. Lee Elementary School, now Spotsylvania Elementary School. Minutes away, a Confederate war memorial near the Spotsylvania Courthouse. 

These and other Confederate figures loomed large in Craig’s community. Now, they serve as seeds of thought for her Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project. 

Craig is spending the nine weeks of full-time research this summer exploring why activists pushed to remove the monuments on Richmond’s controversial Monument Avenue, where five colossal statues lined the street’s verdant median until recently, venerating men who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The statues made national headlines in recent years, with many claiming their removal was long overdue. All five Confederate monuments were eventually removed from public view, but why activists focused on the monuments, Craig is learning, is hardly unanimous.

“In my research, I don’t tune out alternative organizing methods because my research is not directly advocating for a single organizing technique surrounding the monuments’ removal,” Craig said. “I’m just presenting what people are saying about their specific forms of activism.”

She is working alongside her research mentor, Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Sarah E. Cribbs, to learn about different catalysts for activist motivation. By speaking with people across social and political spheres—ranging from local activists to journalists to vocal social media users—Craig hopes to understand how and why activists choose their focus. In particular, Craig hopes to understand why, during the summer of 2020 when protests in response to the murder of George Floyd erupted across the country, Richmond activists concentrated their attention on the monuments. According to Cribbs, “Tristen’s research opens the opportunity for greater community understanding of what the monuments signify and what drives political activism in Richmond. Her research question cannot be divorced from the broader social context – this activism happened in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, during a pandemic, and after the killing of George Floyd. Ultimately, her research focuses on Richmond but presents an opportunity to understand activism more broadly.”

“What needs are we filling with these statues?” Craig asks. “Is the practice outdated now that photography and social media are so prevalent? We need to be open to our ideas evolving since the time when these Confederate monuments were erected.”

Her preliminary research began this past spring to understand the ways Monument Avenue represents a “white space.” Craig describes the concept, coined by Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, as “a place where anyone who is not white feels unwelcome. It doesn’t have anything to do with the presence of white people, but rather the ideologies that are expressed by those spaces.” 

Her SURF project elaborates on that concept by focusing on the area’s significance in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Presenting her early research at two different conferences this year—The Virginia Conference on Race in Roanoke, Virginia, and the virtual Mid-Atlantic Undergraduate Research Conference—put Craig in contact with students and professors with similar academic interests. She became fascinated by the various perspectives she encountered when discussing the Confederate monuments with scholars from different fields, asking many scholars why they thought the monuments had captured so much attention when Richmond struggles with racial inequality, housing issues, and other material issues disproportionately affecting Black residents.

“I talked about the legality of the monuments with legal scholars, the social aspect with other Black students at different colleges, and the art history perspective since so many people view them strictly as art,” she explained. “I made it an interdisciplinary approach rather than just a sociological one.”

Craig is continuing that interdisciplinary approach by interviewing numerous Richmond-area activists to get their take on why the monuments became a focal point during the 2020 protests. She’s also interested in “incorporating public conversations into my research, from anyone willing to talk.” Once she’s finished those conversations, she will compile thematic codes that pop up across subjects to form the basis of her final SURF research paper. The most difficult aspect of her research will be parsing common themes since “everyone’s opinion on this topic is so nuanced,” she explained.

In the meantime, Craig is letting her inquiry unfold one conversation at a time. Because she plans on pursuing graduate work in sociology, she hopes this project will not only give her a glimpse into the experience of full-time sociological research, but will also help her incorporate her interests in social and racial inequality, specifically the ways that social movements inform political activism. 

Craig’s passion for political activism is more than theoretical. She is co-president of the Black Cultural Society, chair of the Diversity Council, and a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. And growing up well-aware of the Confederacy’s treasured history in many circles, this project holds a personal significance, too.

“I have my own ideas like any researcher in science does, and I’m doing my best not to let that influence my research,” she said. “But it’s important to recognize that my lived experiences do impact how I interview my subjects. Memorialization surrounds us. It’s embedded in small, detailed ways that you don’t immediately notice. But I speak from experience when I say that the impact is real.”