‘Resilience in the face of horror and pain’: Emancipation and Freedom Monument unveiled in Richmond

‘For too long, our history has not told their story’

By: - September 22, 2021 3:38 pm

A pair of 12-foot statues designed by Thomas Jay Warren of Oregon — representing a man, woman and infant newly freed from slavery — are part of the new Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Richmond’s Brown’s Island. (Julia Rendleman/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Just weeks after the last Confederate statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue was removed, a long-anticipated monument to emancipation was unveiled Wednesday on Brown’s Island.

“Resilience in the face of horror and pain is what this day is all about, which is why a little rain and a train are not gonna stop us,” State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, chair of the legislature’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, which commissioned the Emancipation and Freedom Monument, told a crowd shielded from the rain by umbrellas, ponchos and tents.

The monument project began nearly a decade ago as an initiative to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and abolition.  The pair of 12-foot bronze statues, representing a man, a woman and an infant freed from slavery, was designed by artist Thomas Jay Warren of Oregon. It honors 10 African American Virginians, five from 1866 to 1970 and five from the period before emancipation.

“Emancipation was not a moment, it was a movement that began when this country began and Virginia was the center of the struggle,” McClellan said. “Virginia, the birthplace of American democracy, was also the birthplace of the American slave trade. Virginia, with its leaders who wrote the founding documents that promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, and a government by, of and for the people and yet those very men owned people that they considered three-fifths human.”



Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the monument, unlike the Confederate statues that have come down in the city since the racial justice protests of 2020, “will withstand the test of time.”

“We were once the capital of the Confederacy and the capital of the Lost Cause. Well, no longer is that Richmond. Together we are building a capital of compassion, a capital of opportunity, a capital of hope,” he said.

The names honored on the base of the monument were selected from a list of more than 100 nominations after a lengthy round of public hearings and narrowing by a commission workgroup.

“Here in Virginia we have worked to tell a more full and comprehensive story of our shared past,” said Gov. Ralph Northam, who referenced his decision to remove a towering tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on state-owned land on Monument Avenue. “Part of that effort has been to take a hard look at who and what we have put up on pedestals in this commonwealth and ask if they truly should be there. …  Just a couple weeks ago, one of my proudest days, we took down a statue of a man who led an army to stop the emancipation and freedom these figures symbolize.”

The Virginians honored on the monument are:

  • Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a spy for the Union in the Confederate White House.
  • William Harvey Carney, a former slave who fought in the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment and for his actions at Fort Wagner was the first African American awarded the Medal of Honor.
  • Gabriel, who led an insurrection plot in 1800.
  • Dred Scott, an enslaved man whose unsuccessful lawsuit for his freedom led to the infamous Supreme Court decision that persons of African descent were not United States citizens.
  • Nat Turner, leader of an 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County.
  • Rosa Dixon Bowser, an educator, women’s rights activist and social reformer who founded the first African American teachers association and co-founded the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Association of Colored Women.
  • John Mercer Langston, Virginia’s first African American member of Congress and the first president of what is now Virginia State University.
  • John Mitchell Jr., a community activist, the first African American to run for governor of Virginia and editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, which covered local, national, and worldwide news, especially lynchings, segregation, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Lucy Simms, a prominent educator who taught three generations of African American children in the Harrisonburg area.
  • The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a Petersburg minister, civil rights activist, chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“For too long, our history has not told their story,” said Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, a member of the commission. “The fight for freedom has been anything but easy. Yet through it all, African Americans have remained resilient in the face of oppression.”


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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]