Richmond’s felled Confederate monuments will likely go to state Black history museum

Plans, Hatched

Richmond’s felled Confederate monuments will likely go to state Black history museum

The Robert E. Lee Statue at Monument Avenue in Richmond pictured in June, 2020. (Mobilus in Mobile/ Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

Following months of uncertainty, the fate of the five confederate statues that until recently populated Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue Historic District as racist relics of a fractured past has become slightly more clear.

Last week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney revealed that a tentative agreement had been struck to transfer ownership of the five monuments, including an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee detached from its massive marble plinth in September, to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMCCV) in Richmond.

Joining these five felled monuments will be two ceremonial cannons and a small handful of other city-owned Confederate statues that weren’t located on Monument Avenue prior to their removal from public view. Per a press announcement, the BMHCCV plans to partner with the Valentine, a museum dedicated to Richmond’s history that ranks as the oldest in the city, and other cultural institutions to embark on a “multi-year, community-driven process that will determine the proper future use of each piece in the collection.”

Next, before any further actions can be made, the agreement must be approved by Richmond City Council. The city, Virginia’s fourth-most populous and capital of the Commonwealth, served as Capital of the Confederacy from 1861 until 1865.

“Symbols matter, and for too long, Virginia’s most prominent symbols celebrated our country’s tragic division and the side that fought to keep alive the institution of slavery by any means possible,” said Northam in a statement shared with NPR and other media outlets. “Now it will be up to our thoughtful museums, informed by the people of Virginia, to determine the future of these artifacts, including the base of the Lee Monument which has taken on special significance as protest art.”

Save for the Lee monument, the four other statues of Confederate icons erected along leafy Monument Avenue during the Jim Crow era—J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall, and Matthew Fontaine Maury—were either swiftly removed by the city and placed into storage per the order of Stoney in July 2020 or, as was the case with the Davis monument, toppled by protestors a month prior.

Located on Commonwealth-owned land, the Lee monument wasn’t removed until over a year after the others due to legal entanglements that emerged when Northam announced his intentions to do away with it. That statue, one of the largest and most well-known Confederate monuments anywhere at 60-feet-tall including its soaring base, was cleared for removal following a unanimous ruling made in early September by the Virginia Supreme Court that effectively ended ongoing litigation.

The aforementioned Confederate statuary not located on Monument Avenue, which included statues of Fitzhugh Lee, Joseph Bryan, and the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Libby Hill, was also removed by city workers mostly without incident over the summer of 2020 during a historic sweep of civil rights protests decrying police brutality and racial injustice that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Local news media spent much of that summer tracking the progress of the city-wide monument removal efforts.

One Confederate monument in Richmond that is staying put for now honors general A.P. Hill. Located on Hermitage Road and West Laburnum Avenue, the monument remains standing for one simple reason: Hill is buried directly beneath it. According to the city, it is in active discussions with the descendants of Hill regarding the potential reinterment of his remains. In September, Stoney’s office announced plans to relocate both Hill’s monument and the remains to a public cemetery in the town of Culpepper in northern Virginia. However, shortly after the announcement was made, the town said it had no plans on accepting the monument and remains.

As for the pedestals associated with Richmond’s Confederate moments, most have yet to be removed by the city and are included as part of the tentative agreement along with the statues themselves. As for the colossal Lee pedestal, it, as mentioned by Northam, is now a work of graffiti-clad protest art and ownership of the land that it sits on along with all related protest materials left behind will be transferred from the Commonwealth to the city and then the BHMCCV pending city council approval per local ABC affiliate WRIC. Work to carefully remove the hulking base kicked off in December. As reported by the Washington Post, the contents of two time capsules unearthed by workers during the removal of the pedestal will remain in the possession of the Commonwealth as researchers study the artifacts contained within them.

“Entrusting the future of these monuments and pedestals to two of our most respected institutions [the BHMCCV and Valentine] is the right thing to do,” said Stoney in a statement. “They will take the time that is necessary to properly engage the public and ensure the thoughtful future uses of these artifacts, while we reimagine Monument Avenue, focus on telling our history fully and accurately in places like Shockoe Bottom and lift up residents throughout the city.”

Meanwhile, as Richmond irons out its plans for its extracted Confederate statues, Charlottesville, Virginia, announced last month the city council-approved donation of its especially notorious Robert E. Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which plans to melt down the bronze monument and transform it into a new work of public art.