On the way out | Richmond Free Press


When the huge memorial to Confederate General Robert E. Lee was erected 131 years ago, the ardent editor of the Richmond Planet, John Mitchell Jr. described it as a memorial that would pass on “a legacy of treason and blood” to future generations.

Suddenly that legacy, which seemed an integral part of the Richmond landscape, is disappearing, leaving an empty circle of grass six feet in diameter at the intersection of Avenue Monument and Allen.

Since Monday, workers have been erecting scaffolding around the 12-meter-high granite base on which the 6-meter-high statue of General Lee once stood, which was dismantled in early September.

For the next several weeks, the crew, organized by Team Henry Enterprises – the same Black-owned construction company that dismantled the statue – will be busy dismantling the remains of this monument to white supremacy and storing it.

“It’s time,” said Richmond artist and clothing designer Brandon Fountain, who has been on site almost every day since June 2020.

At that time, following the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in late May 2020, the site became a regional epicenter of protest against racial injustice and police brutality.

Mr. Fountain had laid out a garden on the property before the state fenced the area to keep people out, and he sees the removal of the pedestal as an opportunity to “create an inclusive space that welcomes everyone”.

The base is still covered in colorful artwork condemning racism and police, turning the circle into an activist centerpiece. An impressed New York Times rated the pedestal as the most influential piece of American protest art since World War II.

It was expected to stay in place.

Governor Ralph S. Northam ordered the statue’s removal in 2020 but had to wait 16 months for a Virginia Supreme Court ruling in early September to resolve the legal challenges. Governor Northam said at the time that the pedestal would remain, its future will be determined by a community-fueled effort to redesign Monument Avenue.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is now in the early stages of that process and is using $ 1 million in government funding.

On Sunday, the governor changed his mind about the remaining pedestal after Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney requested its removal and surrender of the land to the City of Richmond.

“This land is in the middle of Richmond,” declared the governor in his revamped position, “and Richmond will determine the future of this area. The Commonwealth will “remove the pedestal” and then begin transferring the deed to the city on the property.

Jim Nolan, the mayor’s press secretary, said the mayor “believes Richmond deserves a clean slate” as part of the process of making changes in this location and the rest of Monument Avenue.

The city demolished four other Confederate statues it owned on Monument Avenue, and the city council has also approved the removal of the bases of those statues.

One of the reasons for the removal appears to have been concern that the new administration of Republican-elected Governor Glenn A. Youngkin and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives might attempt to sandblast the graffiti from the pedestal and restore the statue.

In recent years Republicans have vigorously led charges of obtaining statues and memorials to aid the Confederate’s treasonous efforts to destroy the Union to uphold slavery.

Although Governor Northam denied that this was a consideration, a statement by his spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky hinted at such a concern: “It was important to us that we do this now and before we leave office.”

The Virginia ACLU was among those disappointed with the governor’s decision to order the removal of the pedestal without public participation.

The First Amendment’s watchdog group criticized the governor for making a secret deal on a pedestal “reclaimed by the community as a monument to racial justice” on which the community should “have a say”.

Portnoy Johnson, one of the few people who gathered Monday to watch the work, called the distance “bittersweet.” She said the statue had become a symbol of the “pain, emotion and sacrifice” of those who were part of the transformation.

Lawrence West, a founder of Black Lives Matter RVA, whose members had cast the circle, put on concerts, and handed out food, said, “I’ve been saying it should come down for a while.”

Mr West said while the dais was in place it was a potential battlefield for those who advocate keeping the Lee statue and those who wished its removal.

When it was gone, he said, “we can start finding common ground.”


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