The Bulletin

Virginia’s new emancipation monument is expected to go up by the end of the year

By: - July 2, 2021 12:01 am

Virginia’s Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom Monument was designed by Oregon sculptor Thomas J. Warren. (Contributed photo)

In September of 2016, the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial commission announced the construction of the “Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom Monument” on Brown’s Island in Richmond dedicated to the emancipation of enslaved Africans. The commission projected that the 12 foot tall monument — which features a male slave with a deeply scarred back and loose shackles, a female slave holding a child, and the names of 10 historical Black Virginians — would be fully completed by the fall of 2019.

Nearly three years later, the statue remains a work in progress.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who chairs the commission, said she now expects the statue to be completed by the end of the year, and potentially as early as September. 

She attributed the delay to the pandemic, environmental remediation work at the site, and the complexities of a real estate transaction that involved the state, the city of Richmond and Venture Richmond, a downtown booster group that controls the island.

“The city of Richmond owns all of Brown’s Island, and Venture Richmond manages it,” McClellan said. “The footprint of the monument is what needed to be transferred to the state, and that process took longer than expected. The process to transfer the land from the city to the state and all of the due diligence that had to be done as part of that process, including an environmental survey that led to a recommendation for soil mitigation lengthened this.” 

The environmental surveys of the Brown’s Island site revealed an unacceptable level of soil contamination present at the monument’s location.

“One of the environmental surveys discovered some land contaminants that required a soil mitigation plan. There used to be a couple of industrial sites there and there were some chemicals in the soil that didn’t reach a level that was dangerous, but did reach a level that recommended soil mitigation,” said McClellan.  

By the time that work was done, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted construction plans on Brown’s Island. “COVID shut everything down,” she said.

The monument itself is completed and sitting in a Department of General Services warehouse, McClellan said, and Oregon-based sculptor Jay Warren is in the process of finishing site work for the monument, which involves construction to prepare the base and foundation.

McClellan hopes that the monument can be a site that all Virginians — schoolchildren specifically — can visit to better educate themselves on the deep, painful racial history of the state. “We realized that emancipation wasn’t a moment, it was a series of events from 1619 to 1865 that included acts of self-liberation, rebellion, and resistance, ” McClellan said. “And freedom didn’t come with the Fourteenth Amendment — that process is still ongoing. So with all of that, we want a monument to emancipation and freedom that tells that story. This process was a significant part of Virginia history that needs to be told.”

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Malcolm Ferguson
Malcolm Ferguson

Malcolm Ferguson is an intern with the Virginia Mercury. He's a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, where he majored in English and political science, and is pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning. Contact him at [email protected]