Jonathan Presson / by Michael Falco

Who is Jonathan Presson?

Jonathan Presson is a Richmond area native. He is a trained artist and an avid reader. Presson talks about how his opinions on race have changed over time, and how he sees Richmond change as he's grown up. 

Excerpt from interview with Jonathan Presson by Whitney Dow, 2018

Presson: [14:47:58] Certainly, it is very difficult to think how one could put those monuments properly into context. I’m actually going to go away from the monuments on Monument Avenue, for this reference, because Richmond, having been the capital of Confederacy, Monument Avenue is our glaring instance, but we have development in the city where they’re trying to take areas that were used as old slave markets downtown in Shockoe Bottom, they want to pave them over and put up hotels on top of them, and to lose that historical context. People, myself included, are actively working to prevent that from happening. There is a small park, I’d say it’s about forty feet in diameter, called Unity Park, where there is one sculpture that sits a couple of blocks from where some of those slave auctions would happen, where the boats would bring people in and out, and there would be an auction in Shockoe Bottom.

It’s hard to think what we would do to change the context on Monument Avenue, when for some people, it’s still a very active affair to try to bury that history elsewhere in Richmond, and for others it is an active affair to make sure that it does not get buried in the rest of Richmond. Because, certainly, a couple of generals portrayed on one street, you can choose to avoid. You don’t have to go down Monument Avenue. That’s a strange thing to say, but the rest of the city, you’re in it every day, and the whole city has that history. When people try to wash over that history, and bury it in the rest of the city, and draw focus to Monument Avenue, either intentionally or unintentionally, I think that has much more of a detrimental effect, and prevents the ability to get any kind of proper context to those monuments. If we lose the context of what Richmond is as a whole versus just Monument Avenue, you might as well give up.

I mean, if we were to put educational, instructional—like a walk where you’d have monuments there that would have information telling you about what happened, what led up to the war, what occurred during the war, or what occurred after the war, focusing on people who were not the white aristocracy, and how they were involved in the war. I think that would go a long way to starting the conversation to get the community together to talk about what should be there. Should this be what we have? How do we handle it? Do we take the big pedestals and knock them down and take those horses and put them down ground level? Literally, take them off of their pedestal. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to bring that perspective to people, to where they’re not looking up and deifying these people, but rather, they’re at ground level, they become humanized to a degree at that point, even though they’ve still been immortalized in bronze for actions I’m not particularly in agreement with. (laughs)

The artistic side of me is conflicted when I look at those monuments, because if you look at the quality of the construction of the monuments, they’re actually very well-made. Scarcely do you see monuments made to that level of detail these days. So I would think, artistically, it would be a bad thing to destroy the bronze, or to damage the bronzes. But to leave them there, unquestioned, standing as these monolithic structures to a past that wasn’t even what the people who want to relive it think it was, is a justice to neither side, by any means or measure.

To put a little context to it, everybody knows we have Monument Avenue. When it was first brought up, what could be done to equal, or to at least begin to tell part of the rest of the story. A lot of folks said, “Well, Richmond should have a monument to Abraham Lincoln.” And I thought, That’s a great idea, but we already have one. We actually have one near Brown’s Island. It’s literally behind the Tredegar Iron Works. (laughs) Which made the cannons that fired the cannonballs in the Civil War. And to get to it, you have to walk around the building. Most people in the city don’t know it’s there, because, obviously, it’s not given the same level of prominence as the monuments on Monument Avenue.

So, everything else seems to come as a secondary. We don’t have a tendency to build huge monuments at this point. A few months back, two or three, a memorial plaza for Maggie Walker was opened, and I think that is a good start. This town has pockets of resistance still, that will find any reason to prevent something being built, other than what is obviously the standing reason behind their argument. Some people were arguing, “It’s going to affect traffic flow on Broad Street.” For anyone who drives down Broad Street, you’d note that they’re building a bus transit system straight down the middle of Broad Street, and if anything’s going to impact traffic on Broad Street, it’s certainly going to be that, and not a monument to Maggie Walker. But there are people who cling to thin threads like that to veil their true beliefs, and it does still come up quite often.

Interview Transcript