Year of racial awakening may topple Richmond’s last Confederate statue

The long march down fabled Monument Avenue of Richmond, Virginia, may finally be at its end.

For more than a century, enormous bronze statues of Confederate leaders have paraded through the city’s paved artery. And since the summer’s protests against police brutality, they’ve all come tumbling down – except for one.

Towering 60 feet high, Richmond’s monument to Robert E. Lee has remained physically and legally out of reach. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s plans to remove the statue have so far been delayed by a lawsuit. But in late October, a judge sided with the state’s order to take it down. Though there is still time for an appeal and the suit isn’t closed, it increasingly looks like the statue’s time is running out.

But if Lee is to go, he’ll leave the city a changed man.

In the last six months, Monument Avenue’s tallest and oldest statue has become an altar for civic action. Its marble pedestal is coated in graffitied calls for racial equity and rage against injustice. Short memorials to victims of police violence surround its base, arranged like temporary gravestones.

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An equestrian Lee still sits above in bronze, but his monument now includes basketball hoops, gardens, tents, lawn chairs, and a grill for spontaneous barbecues. The New York Times calls it the most influential work of American protest art since World War II. The city’s own call it reclaimed territory.

For many Richmonders over the last 130 years, the statue has represented a narrative out of touch with much of its population. Its new life, though, shows that the narrative isn’t set in stone – and has many residents reimagining the city.

“It is an amazing visual of a dramatic turning point in our cultural history as expressed as social outcry, of people unifying in the streets to say this has got to stop,” says Janine Bell, president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society, a local group dedicated to preserving African and African American culture. “I hope that this has been a conscious-raising time for people, so that when we talk about America the Beautiful, it can be true.”

“Live or die for Dixie”

But a beautiful America looks far different today than it did 130 years ago.

The Lee statue’s dedication on May 29, 1890 was a monumental event for Southerners and the Lost Cause narrative of Civil War history, which portrays the Confederacy as a noble defender of states’ rights. Between 75,000 and 100,000 people – including more than 10,000 former Confederate soldiers – held an all-day, 4-mile parade to the statue, then located in a tobacco field just outside the city. Upon arrival, they listened to a prayer of invocation, a speech from the governor, and then a 10,000-word paean to Lee from Archer Anderson, a former Confederate leader. 

Observers were “carried back to 1861,” read an article in the city paper, when “every note, every syllable of the popular air spoke our honest purpose – ‘to live or die for Dixie.’” In the former capital of the Confederacy, the war wasn’t over.

For many of the city’s Black residents, it still isn’t today. 

“Growing up in Richmond, I never really looked at Monument Avenue,” says James “JJ” Minor, president of the Richmond branch of the NAACP. “We never really went down that street because we knew … the symbols of hate on that street. We knew that that wasn’t just a place to go.”

Since the summer, that has changed. 

When the Black Lives Matter protests began in May, Monument Avenue became a civic battlefront, and the Lee statue became a cultural center. It attracted speeches, songs, memorials, protests, collective moments of mourning and community gatherings. Even today, visiting the statue has become something of a local pilgrimage. 

“It’s a lightning rod,” says Ms. Bell. “It’s a place that has been designated as ground zero in Richmond.”

Reclaiming Richmond 

Even if the statue is just a symbol, the movement around it still matters to many in the city.

“It reminds me of the Berlin Wall,” says Lark Washington, eating lunch at the Lee statue with her family. “Before this I never went on Monument Avenue because I didn’t want to be around statues that reminded me of white supremacy. … I’ve never spent more time on this street until now.”

That sense of reclaimed space, expressed by so many locals, gives Richmonders a greater sense of belonging in their own home. 

Monuments have a way of taking the temperature of the moment, says Gabriel Reich, associate professor at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Confederate statuary. The energy attracted by the Lee statue, he says, may signal a rejection of what it has come to represent. 

In a city where “all roads lead to and from systemic racism,” says Mr. Minor, such moments of change can have impact for generations.

Since Autumn Nazeer moved to Richmond in October, she’s visited the Lee statue each day to pick up litter. The statue has become a memorial, she says, and memorials deserve respect.

But for her it’s also personal. 

“He’s my ancestor,” says Ms. Nazeer, staring at Lee atop his graffitied altar. Still, she hopes the statue will soon come down. The city doesn’t belong to him anymore, and she thinks enough people now realize it. 

“It’s not about Black Lives Matter, although Black lives have to matter for all lives to matter,” she says of the monument’s new life. “But that’s what’s happening: an awakening, I think a spiritual awakening.”


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