State still deciding whether to reopen circle around remains of Lee Monument

By: - October 6, 2021 12:02 am

A fence surrounds the pedestal that formerly held a massive bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

It’s been a month since crews removed a massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, but the grassy traffic circle that had become a rallying point for protesters last year and a magnet for tourists remains off limits to the public.

State officials say they haven’t yet decided when or if they will take down the tall, chain-link fence that surrounds the graffiti-covered stone pedestal.

“There hasn’t been a decision on the future of the site at this time,” said Virginia Department of General Services spokeswoman Dena Potter in an email.

When the state initially put up the fencing in January, they said it was to make sure crews could act swiftly to remove the statue should the Supreme Court of Virginia issue a favorable ruling in a case that had temporarily blocked Gov. Ralph Northam from moving forward.

That ruling came on Sept. 2 and the statue was removed the following week. But the fence remained up, with officials saying the barrier would remain in place for safety reasons while crews worked to repair ground damaged by the heavy machinery used to lift the statue off the pedestal.

That work has been completed, but now  officials say they’re still talking about it.

“Discussions and coordination between the commonwealth and the City of Richmond continue on this issue,” said a spokeswoman for Northam, Alena Yarmosky.

The state has charged the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with developing a long-term vision for Monument Avenue, the site of five Confederate monuments, all of which have now been removed.

Boys play basketball near the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond earlier this month. As demonstrations over police brutality and racism have unfolded, the area around the Lee statue has been transformed into a new space that’s seen cookouts, music and other activities. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

While the city plans to remove the remaining four pedestals under its ownership, the state is holding open the possibility that the Lee pedestal could figure into a redevelopment of the space.

The granite base was blanketed in graffiti last year during protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and images of the reclaimed Confederate memorial drew national attention, with The New York Times naming it one of the “25 most influential works of protest art since World War II” and National Geographic featuring it on its cover.

The space, which previously saw little in the way of pedestrian activity, regularly drew hundreds for impromptu concerts, barbecues and pick-up basketball games. Families from around the region and country drove in to get their pictures taken. Activists, who renamed the space Marcus-David Peters Circle after a teacher killed by police in Richmond during a mental health break, planted a community garden and erected memorials to victims of police violence.

But the sudden surge of activity wore on neighbors along the upscale street, where houses regularly sell for more than $1 million and residents complained of noise, occasional violent confrontations and a sudden influx of human feces in alleyways and gardens. (A nearby church eventually set up portable toilets a block away.)

A fence surrounds the pedestal that formerly held a massive bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Activists who frequented the site have called the complaints overblown and pressed for the state to reopen the circle. They doubt that the fencing was ever about ensuring speedy removal of the statue so much as ending community gatherings.

“The fence should have never gone up,” said Princess Blanding, who is the sister of the Peters, the circle’s new namesake, and is making a third-party run for governor as a member of the Liberation Party. “They stated that they put it up for safety reasons. But the statue is already down, why is the fence still up? The reality is the fence is up to prevent us from continuing to use this as a rallying location.”

Nearby residents are split on the statue, though a majority of those in the immediate area supported its removal and think the pedestal should also be taken down, according to Alice Massie, who helped organize an amicus brief relaying that sentiment to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Massie, however, said she and others would like to see some kind of organized programming at the site if the state chooses to reopen it. She said she hopes the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will take the lead as part of its broader work on the street. “The neighbors would love to have the circle programmed in a thoughtful way,” she said. “Could the museum open the gates like it opens a gallery and have it curated?”

That’s not to say anyone has asked for the neighborhood’s input, she said. “We would like to know what they’re thinking of,” she said. “Nobody has given us any information.”

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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. Contact him at [email protected]

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