Marches and demonstrations were a nightly occurrence in Richmond this summer as the former capital of the Confederacy swelled with protesters calling for an end to racial injustice and police brutality against Black and brown people.
And amid what became an international movement, eyes around the world turned to Richmond as the city’s Confederate monuments were toppled from their pedestals.
Now, even as protest activity continues to subside, Virginia’s capital remains a talking point in the conversation surrounding historical interpretation in public spaces.
On Thursday, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center — a research and education arm of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania — hosted 178 attendees for an online forum called “Lost Cause, Potential Futures: Rethinking Confederate Monuments in Richmond, Virginia.”
The virtual event centered on “themes of racial justice, the power of monumentality, and the ongoing work being done to understand, grapple with, and reconfigure historical interpretation in public spaces,” according to the flyer.
Moderator Grace Golden is a Richmond native and administrative coordinator at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center. She said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently that she believes dialogue in Richmond centered on the city’s Confederate representation speaks to the national conversation surrounding race.
“Richmond’s Confederate monuments were stitched into the cultural landscape of my childhood,” Golden said, “a constant reminder of the Lost Cause narrative I learned in school, of Richmond’s legacy as the capital of the Confederacy, and of the contemporary structural inequalities that the city continues to face.”
The panel included three speakers — historical strategist Free Egunfemi Bangura, founder of Untold RVA; Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Executive Director Christy Coleman, former CEO of the American Civil War Museum; and Richmond-based artist Alex Criqui, who partnered with Dustin Klein to project images of modern and historic Black figures including Harriet Tubman, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Frederick Douglass onto the Robert E. Lee monument.
Golden said the speakers represented three areas of the ongoing work to reimagine spaces commemorating the Confederacy in Richmond — public history (Coleman), commemorative justice (Egunfemi Bangura) and art activism (Criqui).
Much of the conversation centered on the demonstrations, which over the summer became a cultural happening at Lee Circle on Monument Avenue. The site has been renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle by those who gather there in honor of a 24-year-old school teacher killed after he charged a Richmond police officer during a mental health crisis.
Golden presented questions posed by viewers to the panel, one of which touched on the power of monuments, installations and rituals to give voice to communities rather than uplift causes such as the Confederacy.
“Art symbolism is really powerful; throughout history we’ve seen the power of it and I think there’s almost a spiritual element to the creative process,” Criqui said.
Golden said the reason images of the circle garnered so much national attention was because it became a community space — musicians played cellos and violins, box gardens grew free produce, visitors played basketball on makeshift courts and artists adorned the space with images of hope, love, mourning and agony.
“There is an international spotlight on Richmond right now for the activism at MDP Circle,” Golden said.
Egunfemi Bangura said one of her favorite aspects of that communal space was the opportunity it presented for “portal keepers” and other spiritual and cultural keepers such as herself to “reinstitute the spirit of ancestral veneration that comes from West Africa in front of a diverse audience.”
Egunfemi Bangura was one of a host of demonstrators who brought sage to the Circle, and led traditional West African rituals, most notably during the visit by George Floyd’s family.
The juxtaposition between these cultural demonstrations and the Lost Cause narrative symbolized by the statues was what stuck with her.
“That intersection is the most powerful thing I think that came out of my time when I was there. I had white kids, everybody of every age group and every background to the thousands, singing the song to open the portal that comes from West Africa,” she said.
“So it is the transference of our traditions — that’s the most important thing that I saw happen there, is that we began to have a new audience for this stuff. We began to weave African cultural traditions and spirituality into spaces that were created to be toxic and undermining to Black people.”
Criqui, who for so many nights since June has sat on the peripheries of the Lee monument and observed the ongoing demonstrations as he and Klein’s art illuminated the area, said he saw the gradual evolution in the spirit of the space referenced by Egunfemi Bangura.
“I think over the course of time, the natural beauty of what this city is about just grew out there,” Criqui said.
“And what was initially about outrage and mourning, while it always stays centered around that because unfortunately these tragedies don’t stop happening, really turned into a celebration of Black life in America, Black culture, and all the things that are indispensable to our national identity in relation to what Black people have given this nation.”
Although almost all the city’s Confederate statues fell over the summer, the Lee monument, the first and largest installation on Monument Avenue, still stands at the center of the circle, pending litigation.
Coleman, the former CEO of the American Civil War Museum and a member of the Monument Avenue Commission, said that in relation to colonial narratives and their depiction of Black history in America, the museum field is “in a space of reckoning.”
“In the museum world, what we have tried to do and what we certainly did with the American Civil War Museum, our goal was to lay the facts to bear so that people could create new memories when they came to our site and so that they could challenge the heritage that had been established regardless of where they sat on that fence,” she said.
“And when the Monument Avenue commission was established and several of us were asked to serve on that, we started with ‘What does the record tell us? And then how do we reframe and correct this narrative that the whole community now needs to understand and embrace in a different way?’ ”
The event was recorded and is available to watch on the Penn Museum website and YouTube channel.