The Capitol Square statue of Harry Flood Byrd Sr. vanished with barely a trace — not even the trademark of Richmond’s racial reckoning, the empty pedestal.
But despite the broken bricks and barren patches marking the site, the legacy of the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator has not been laid to rest, despite the supine position of his 10-foot bronze likeness as it was placed on a flatbed truck. Even if we wanted to, we could not forget the arch-segregationist whose machine dominated Virginia politics for much of the 20th century. Byrd’s spirit, nearly six decades after Massive Resistance, lives on beyond a public education system that largely remains separate and unequal.
Byrd, a Democrat, would approve of the ongoing efforts by Republicans to curtail the vote of Black people, the impoverished and anyone standing in the way of their goal to fashion a political landscape as barren of actual democracy as possible.
“For me, this is a big day, a special day, in a very sort of surreal way,” Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, told Times-Dispatch reporter Patrick Wilson on Wednesday, as Byrd was being removed. “Because my grandfather spent his entire adult life fighting Massive Resistance, to make sure that schools could be integrated, to make sure that our system was fair. And two generations later, here we are.”
But where, exactly, are we?
Before protesters took matters into their own hands, there was a lot of talk about how removing Confederate statues would “erase history.” But as Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
We live with the legacy of Harry Byrd. And barring a dramatic turn of events, many of us will die with it.
Erasure is a tricky thing. To truly wipe a people or a historical event from memory, it would have to have inhabited that space in the first place. In Virginia, today as in yesteryear, the marginalized often are not so much forgotten as nonexistent in people’s hearts and minds in the first place.
We recently watched the documentary “Summer of Soul,” about a 1969 concert series that took place in a Harlem park now named for Marcus Garvey, during the same summer as the renowned Woodstock music festival less than two hours upstate.
It’s the greatest music festival most of us never had heard, even though it was attended by 300,000 people and featured such artists as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers, the Fifth Dimension, Max Roach, Sly and the Family Stone, and others.
The concert’s footage sat for 50 years before Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots discovered it, and created a concert film and social commentary that captures the intersection of African American hope and despair at end of the 1960s. Otherwise, that moment in time — “when the Negro died and Black was born” — never would have been documented in this way.
Or as Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday said, “not only does Thompson celebrate the extraordinary artistry of the most influential musicians of their era but he interrogates the deeper meaning of how public memory is created and — in this case — casually erased.”
The toolkit of erasure includes highway construction, urban renewal and environmental racism.
Wednesday, on NPR, I heard the story of Wallace, La., a community of descendants of the formerly enslaved that is being threatened by a grain terminal that would include 54 silos storing millions of bushels of corn, wheat and soybeans that would be shipped down the Mississippi River from a new terminal. It would be a 24-hour industrial operation that residents say will bring noise, dust and truck traffic to their bucolic community.
“There are many of these little linear villages that were a relic of plantations, and they were predominantly African American. And oftentimes, these plants are situated adjacent to those [fence-line communities] or very close to them,” Craig Colten, professor emeritus of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, told NPR.
Of course, I thought of Brown Grove, born as a freedmen’s community, faces a similar dilemma from a planned Wegmans distribution center just outside of Ashland.
The Wegmans facility would potentially threaten gravesites and further constrict Brown Grove, which already is near Interstate 95, the Hanover County Airport, suburban development and a landfill.
“It looks like they have a goal to get rid of this community,” McKinley Harris told Times-Dispatch reporter Chris Suarez in January.
The Harry Byrds of the world built monuments of erasure that still stand. Our work is undone until we topple those also.