City leaders promised last week to remove statues honoring the Confederacy from Monument Avenue.
Someone took matters into their own hands late Wednesday.
Shortly before 11 p.m., the statue depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis was felled from its pedestal at Monument and Davis avenues. Police quickly swarmed the area. A tow company hauled the bronze statue onto a flatbed truck and whisked it away as onlookers cheered and chanted.
It was an unceremonious end for the monument unveiled to a crowd of thousands on June 3, 1907. More than a century later, Davis was considered the most divisive figure on Monument Avenue. A city panel recommended Davis for removal two years ago, calling it the “most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment” of those standing on the most famous street in the former capital of the Confederacy.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month reignited the local push to remove Confederate iconography from Richmond’s public spaces. Protesters have called for the statues to come down, decrying them as symbols of white supremacy.
The Davis statue was toppled on the same night that demonstrators in Portsmouth beheaded four Confederate statues and tore one down, injuring one man, as police looked on. Elsewhere across the country, cities have moved swiftly to take down Confederate statues in response to backlash stemming from the protests.
Virginia has more monuments to the Confederacy than any other state besides Georgia, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Richmond has the most of any locality in the state, with 13, though only 11 now remain intact. No other Virginia locality has more than three Confederate monuments.
The morning after Davis fell, a steady stream of people came to snap photos of what remained of the monument.
“I think it’s about time,” said Verlon R. Vrana, a 69-year-old resident of Arthur Ashe Boulevard who came to see the monument Thursday morning. “I think our politicians have been kind of mealy-mouthed and prevaricating, and so eventually people just took it into their own hands.”
The paint-spattered monument with its empty pedestal evoked a different response for Ruth Jordan, a 59-year-old Henrico County resident.
Jordan grew up in South Richmond. She said she had always admired the statues, but had recently come to the realization that they are hurtful to her African American friends.
Thursday was her first visit to the street since protesters defaced the monuments earlier this month. Seeing the Davis monument in its current state was a shock, she said.
“I think it’s a shame. There’s a right way of doing it and this is not it,” she said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Soon after, a bulldozer came and scooped up a portion of the pedestal left in the roadway.
Mayor Levar Stoney and all nine members of the City Council said last week that they would remove the four city-controlled statues from the street. Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to take down the state-owned Robert E. Lee monument “as soon as possible,” as well.
Northam on Thursday reiterated his pledge to remove the Lee monument, but urged people to consider the safety risks and allow it and others to be taken down “the right way.”
To remove the statues, the City Council must follow a process outlined in a state law that takes effect July 1. It requires localities to hold a public hearing and publish notice of their intent in a newspaper. It also permits them to conduct a nonbinding referendum regarding the monuments.
If the City Council votes for removal, it must have a 30-day waiting period in which it offers to relocate the monuments to any museum, historical society or military battlefield, among other places.
A spokesman for Stoney said Thursday morning that the future of the Davis statue is “to be determined.”
In a series of tweets, Stoney said Davis never should have been put on a pedestal, but asked protesters to let the state-mandated removal process run its course.
“For the sake of public safety, I ask the community to allow us to legally contract to have the remaining ones removed professionally, to prevent any potential harm that could result from attempts to remove them without professional experience,” Stoney stated.
“I will push for us to waste no time on this and to make it happen as soon as possible. Richmond, we will finish the job of removing these antiquated symbols of racism and hate.”
Kimberly Gray, who represents most of Monument Avenue on the City Council, said in statement issued through an aide that she wanted to see Confederate statues removed “safely and legally.”
“I understand the anguish felt by many in our city. As the mother of two black sons, I have experienced the same. Now is the time to turn fear and anxiety into positive action that will move Richmond forward together,” said Gray, also a mayoral candidate.
“The safety of our citizens must be protected. Just last night in Portsmouth, an individual was hospitalized with serious injuries. We must prevent similar incidents from happening here. The statues can be removed safely and legally while we honor those like the ‘Forgotten 14’ Civil War heroes who deserve commemoration.”
The Davis statue is the third that has been pulled down in recent days. On Saturday, protesters knocked over one honoring Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham that stood in Monroe Park. On Tuesday night, they toppled a statue depicting explorer Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park and dumped it in a nearby lake.
Asked about the Richmond Police Department’s approach to security with the continued protests and toppling of statues, a department spokesman said Thursday: “We are investigating all of the incidents. It’s our policy not to talk about patrol strategies or tactics. But that’s not meant to infer we are not aware of the ongoing situation and are constantly adjusting our methods to address it.”
At the request of Richmond police, footage from traffic cameras operated by the city is not available to the public for security reasons.
Also Thursday, the city removed the Richmond Police Memorial statue from Byrd Park. The statue had been defaced several times since the protests began.
Staff writers Zach Joachim and Johanna Alonso contributed to this report.