The prayer beads someone left behind after dying from coronavirus. An expired vial of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. A steel railroad spike found in Richmond’s African Ancestral Burial Ground. The photo of a Black ballerina with her fist raised high in front of the pedestal that’s propped up a Confederate general for 131 years.
That’s part of what’s replacing a century-old time capsule — filled in 1887 with what’s expected to be tributes to people who fought for slavery — buried inside the soon-to-be-taken-down Robert E. Lee monument.
On Tuesday, the day before the statue is slated for removal, Virginia officials unveiled the culmination of a nearly yearlong journey to choose the 39 artifacts that would capture 2020 for those among the living 130 years from now.
Thirty-nine artifacts to capture a devastating year when a virus killed more than 5,000 Virginians; when the police killing of George Floyd forced the commonwealth to once again reckon with its racist past years after a blackface scandal engulfed Gov. Ralph Northam’s office; and when the grassy circle around the Lee statue became a reclamation of Black joy and resistance.
For roughly eight months, those who built the community space into one of pickup basketball games, projections and voter drives have been shut out by an 8-foot-tall fence the state erected in preparation for taking the statue of Lee and his horse off their pedestal. The site, an epicenter of Richmond’s racial justice protests, has also at times seen a barrage of tear gas, flash bangs and pepper spray from state and local police.
Among the selections a 16-member committee chose of 150 public submissions: the portraits of 24 Virginia immigrants, snapshots from “Stop Asian Hate” protests in May, a “Black Lives Matter” sticker, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Michael Paul Williams’ signed collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning columns on dismantling the legacy of the Confederacy in its former capital.
Tucked in the at-home shop of Richmond sculptor Paul DiPasquale — who built the city’s Arthur Ashe monument, Virginia Beach’s King Neptune statue and the new handmade time capsule — historians, museum curators, reporters and photographers looked on as one-by-one, history was placed into the box.
First lady Pam Northam and Janice Underwood, the state’s first chief diversity officer, were the ones to grip the silver knobs Tuesday afternoon and lock the artifacts in before DiPasquale screwed the capsule shut.
This time, Underwood said, “we get to tell a different story.”
“There’s more here in this capsule that brings us together and unites us as we walk toward the future, as opposed to this sort of polarizing conversation of what race is to Virginia,” Underwood said in an interview. “This idea of celebrating the Lost Cause? We’re beyond that.”
In March, Preservation Virginia conducted a scan to identify the void where the capsule is thought to be located. The Department of General Services concluded that it could be removed without debilitating the pedestal’s structure.
By June, Northam announced plans to replace the 1887 time capsule with objects that “say to the world, this is today’s Virginia, not yesterday’s” and opened up submissions to the public for one month.
In June 2020, Northam met legal resistance after ordering the removal of the Lee monument, which is on state property. The outcome was embroiled in a lawsuit until last week, when the Virginia Supreme Court cleared the way for its collapse.
Rita Davis, top legal counsel for Northam who recently left her post for a job at the Pentagon, was key in the administration’s success in the ongoing legal battle — appearing various times to outline the state’s authority for removal.
“This monument and its time capsule reflected Virginia in 1890 — and it’s time to remove both, so that our public spaces better reflect who we are as a people in 2021,” said Northam in a statement Tuesday. “The past 18 months have seen historic change, from the pandemic to protests for racial justice that led to the removal of these monuments to a lost cause. It is fitting that we replace the old time capsule with a new one that tells that story.”
Archives from the RTD’s predecessor, The Richmond Dispatch, detail at least 60 objects placed within the 40-foot-tall granite pedestal, including a rare picture of President Abraham Lincoln in his coffin. Roughly 22 years after the end of the Civil War, 25,000 Confederate veterans and supporters arrived in Richmond to celebrate.
The original time capsule will be removed Thursday and placed within the Department of Historic Resources.