With Confederates vanquished, what’s next for Richmond’s Monument Avenue?

By: - September 8, 2021 2:31 pm

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue Wednesday after a lengthy legal battle. (Scott Elmquist/ Style weekly)

Onlookers cheered as crews lifted a bronze likeness of Robert E. Lee off a 40-foot-tall, state-owned pedestal Wednesday.

Officials say they plan to move what had been the country’s largest remaining Confederate statue into temporary storage. From there, its fate is TBD, as are plans for Monument Avenue as a whole — a boulevard built to showcase Confederate statuary.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities, not just here at the circle but the whole treelined street,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said as crews worked behind him.

Last summer Stoney oversaw the removal of four city-owned Confederate statues along the street. Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to take down Lee around the same time, but was delayed by legal challenges only resolved last week.

Va. Supreme Court clears way for removal of Lee monument in Richmond

Neither Richmond nor the state have made any decisions about what to do next, instead charging the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with leading “a community-driven effort to reimagine Monument Avenue.”

Northam had initially proposed dedicating $25 million for the effort, but lawmakers reduced the amount to $1 million over two years, saying they’ll revisit the issue once the VMFA comes forward with a concrete plan, which is due in September 2022.

A spokeswoman, Amy Peck, said the museum is still hiring staff to run the program. “Inclusivity will be central to this initiative, which will kick off within the year, and it will involve community leaders, stakeholders, artists, urban planners, archivists and historians in its planning and implementation.”

While the statues obviously won’t figure into a reimagined landscape, there’s been debate over the pedestals on which they once sat.

Northam has ordered the granite base of the Lee monument stay in place for now. The structure, transformed by a thick layer of graffiti, and the traffic circle on which it sits, became a rallying point for protesters following the death of George Floyd last year.

Northam’s administration unsuccessfully urged the city to follow suit.

“Governor Northam and our administration plan to keep the pedestal on which General Lee and his horse, Traveller, sit in place until a planning process can be completed that considers this pedestal, and all of the others along the avenue, as part of a bigger discussion,” Northam’s chief of Staff, Clark Mercer, wrote in a June letter. “Very strong arguments have been made as to why the pedestals should remain; they have artistic value in and of themselves, though also are important symbols that help us tell the story of what has happened in these spaces.”

Museum and arts groups also urged the city to pause before removing the pedestals. “Over the summer of 2020, Richmond citizens rapidly recontextualized several of the monument’s bases, transforming them into powerful platforms for shared voice and civic demonstration,” wrote Ashley Hawkins, the director of Studio Two Three. “We want a process that honors these efforts and envisions these platforms as sites for healing, historical recontextualization, and/or spaces for new works of art.”

City officials declined, voting in June to remove them, either paving over them entirely or replacing the stone work with landscaping.

“We’re starting the process of sort of rebuilding this part of the city, and it has to start with taking them down,” said Max Hepp-Buchanan, a member of the city’s planning commission, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “I understand the heartache and pain with losing such a prominent landmark, but this is not, in my opinion, the kind of landmark we want in Richmond anymore.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center also backed the pedestal’s removal, writing in a statement in June that “removing the statue is not enough and that these pedestals represent the unfinished business of reckoning with our country’s Confederate past.”

Meanwhile, the four city-owned statues remain in storage under tarps outside the city’s sewage treatment plant. The state has not said where Lee would be taken, describing it only as “secure storage,” but Richmond television station WRIC, citing unnamed officials, reported Tuesday that it’s headed to the grounds of a prison outside of Richmond.

As for what’s next, the governor’s office said only that it intends to find “a permanent, appropriate location … for its display.”

Likewise, the city of Richmond has not yet made any decisions about what to do with its deposed Confederates, but has solicited requests from groups interested in the statues. An array of proposals have come in.

The Navy has formally asked for a statue of Matthey Fontaine Maury, a Confederate Naval commander who is considered the “father of modern oceanography,” — though they say they don’t intend to display it. The Valentine, a city history museum, has requested the statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was sculpted by the institution’s namesake benefactor. A group of Civil War reenactors requested two cannons removed from the street. And the foundation that operates the Historic Ellenbrook Museum, dedicated to the family of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in Russell County, asked for as many of the statues as the city is willing to give, describing plans to create a driving tour “called the Southwest Virginia Historical Monuments Trail.”

Several pro-Confederate groups have also asked for the statues, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a small Tennessee-based company that calls itself the “New Confederate States of America” and promised to locate the memorials on private property and guard them 24 hours a day.

Finally, an artist requested the city’s Stonewall Jackson statue, which he said he planned to cut into small pieces and sell.

The City Council has not acted on any of the requests and has not yet set out a timeline for doing so.

Onlookers crowd around the Lee Monument in Richmond watch as crews remove the statue from the pedestal Wednesday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Among the crowd that assembled to watch workers lift Lee off his pedestal, opinions on Lee’s ultimate fate were mixed.

“I think they should destroy it,” said Olu Johnson, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It just doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Others said they saw a home for it. Catherine Smith, a retired Richmond Public School teacher who broke into jubilant song after the statue came down, said she thought it would be appropriate to display it in a museum. “I’m not going to say blow it up,” she said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.