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'This statue represents division:' The nation's largest Confederate statue no longer stands on Monument Avenue
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'This statue represents division:' The nation's largest Confederate statue no longer stands on Monument Avenue

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Lee statue in Richmond, the last confederate on Monument Ave., is removed.

Amanda Lynch’s eyes welled with tears Wednesday morning as a crane heaved the 12-ton tribute to Robert E. Lee from the 40-foot pedestal where it’s stood over Monument Avenue for more than a century.

She felt weightless as the statue drifted from its base and the crowd around her started to cheer.

Her teenage daughter was part of the summer of protest last year that transformed the former capital of the Confederacy, compelling politicians to dismantle the monuments that many thought would outlast them.

“It almost felt like a pressure valve being released,” she said of seeing the statue come down. “I really wish my grandparents were here to see that all the things they prayed for are coming to fruition.”

Fourteen months after Gov. Ralph Northam ordered its removal, crews on Wednesday took down the last remaining Confederate statue on Monument Avenue, where Lynch’s 14-year-old daughter, Ava Holloway, last summer stood with her friend Kennedy George in black tutus, fists raised in a symbol of strength in front of the transformed graffiti-covered monument.

Dedicated 131 years ago, the statue of Lee was the largest standing Confederate monument in the country before it was removed Wednesday, according to state officials.

For those who had been advocating for its removal, the shrine was a symbol of white supremacy, racial segregation and disenfranchisement. It was erected in 1890 as the centerpiece of a neighborhood built exclusively for white residents.

Brenda Riddick knew its legacy well. She slung her arms over the metal barricades before noon struck, peering at the blocked-off section of the median where her then-tiny hands interlocked with her grandfather’s in the 1950s — an era when Virginia resisted integrating schools and whites-only stores barred Riddick, who is Black, from entering.

“This statue represents division,” her grandfather would say, pointing up at Lee. “It represents the past. You don’t even want to look up there and know the history of it.”

Then on Wednesday morning, for the first time in the 68 years she’s been alive, there wasn’t a general who fought for the enslavement of people like her great-great-grandmother resting triumphantly on Monument Avenue. A pedestal overlaid with spray-painted condemnations of white supremacy and police brutality was all that remained.

***

Early Wednesday, a week after the Virginia Supreme Court denied a pair of appeals challenging the removal of the statue, contractors began their work by strapping blue ties around the horse’s legs. The bronze statue was hoisted from its pedestal and placed on the ground just before 9 a.m.

Onlookers cheered and chanted, “Whose street? Our street!” and sang Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” Nearby, past and current Northam administration officials smoked cigars.

The lead contractor for the project was Devon Henry of Team Henry Enterprises, whose company also helped remove Monument Avenue’s other Confederate statues. After the monument was removed, Henry, who is Black, hugged his mother.

Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney stood in a nearby lawn to watch the statue meet the ground, surrounded by prominent Black lawmakers and other guests.

“You don’t realize unless you’re right here how large that is, especially when you see it in comparison to the man,” said Northam, looking up at the statue. “This is a day that’s been a long time coming. Any remnant like this that glorifies the Lost Cause of the Civil War, it needs to come down.”

Stoney, asked about what lies ahead for Richmond’s Monument Avenue, said the tree-lined street could better represent the values of diversity and inclusion.

“I’m confident we’re going to produce something that’s the opposite of what this is,” said Stoney, pointing to the strapped-up statue.

***

In a joint statement, “Race Capitol” podcast co-hosts and Richmond organizers Chelsea Higgs Wise, Kalia Harris and Nomi Isaac criticized how news outlets “have zoned in on Lee because of his height and the story he holds” and disregarded how “the Black dehumanization and violence Lee promoted still runs rampant through the police departments that continue to terrorize our communities.”

And as Virginia’s politicians laud the general’s physical removal — which the “Race Capitol” team emphasized was accelerated and driven by the people — millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding are headed toward law enforcement, the statement said.

“While so much attention is being put on Monument Avenue, protesters from last summer are still facing felony charges,” they wrote. “We call on those watching to remember just miles down the road where historic Black Richmond cemeteries are being neglected, families struggle to feed their children, families are being evicted, and we are still being harassed, surveilled, and killed by Richmond police.”

Since January, the residents who built the circle into a community space — informally named after Marcus-David Peters, a Black man shot to death by Richmond police after threatening an officer during a mental health crisis in 2018 — have been shut out by an 8-foot-tall fence the state erected to prepare for Lee’s dismount.

The fence made the circle — which housed planted gardens, makeshift basketball courts and musical concerts — a ghost of the space that once was. All around the 40-foot plinth, activists had placed memorials to Black people killed by police, transforming the monument into a site of reclamation.

But at times, it was also a battleground between police and protesters, and racial justice activists and right-wing provocateurs.

Monuments glorifying Lee and dozens of other Confederate figures across the state were erected a generation after the end of the Civil War as part of the “Lost Cause” — a movement that sought to perpetuate discrimination against Black people while denying that a key impetus for the Civil War was the defense of slavery.

Gary Flowers, a local historian, said the statue of Lee symbolized the “glorification of sedition, secession, slavery and sodomy.”

Watching the monument fall, Flowers said he thought of his ancestors who were victims of chattel slavery and the political systems of the Confederacy and the South for generations after the war.

“Their spirits are partially soothed today by this symbolic removal of Confederate iconography,” he said.

In the public viewing area about two blocks from the Lee monument, where trees largely obstructed the view of Lee’s liftoff, Justin Cockrell clutched an African ankh necklace representing eternal life.

“I can’t believe it’s coming down,” said Cockrell, 18, squinting as streaks of sunlight broke through the trees. “This is the capital of the Confederacy, and I’m a Black student studying art here.”

Standing on the avenue he’d only heard stories about — the miles-long stretch that once banned Black people from being homeowners — the Ohio native thought of their grandmother from Baton Rouge, La., who spent her life working to get out of the South; their grandfather who grew up in rural Mississippi; their Black history teacher from Richmond who was the first to disrupt the narrative Cockrell was told about the Civil War.

A semblance of progress was being made, Cockrell said. His grandparents didn’t live to see it.

Nearby, Kamari Branch, 19, was one of the 100 or so spectators who gathered on the lawn of the old Lee Medical Building, which is now apartments. The area was closed to the public, but that didn’t stop those gathered from coalescing there to get a good view.

“I was really excited to be here and witness this,” said Branch, who was born and raised in Richmond. “We pushed through the fence — I feel like that was valid because, as Black people, we have the right to be here.”

Police escorted one man out of the secure area after he attempted to trespass into the work zone.

Authorities say 46 vehicles have been towed from streets around the monument since Tuesday, and one person was cited by Richmond police for reckless driving on Tuesday afternoon.

***

It was not until recently that political leaders and communities throughout the country, particularly in the South, began to heed the public calls for removal or recontextualization, at a time when the demographics of Virginia and the United States were changing.

The first waves of change in Virginia originated 75 miles from Richmond, in Charlottesville, where local leaders voted to take down their monuments in 2017.

Several months after the Charlottesville City Council voted to take down the city’s monuments to Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, white supremacists and neo-Nazis held a rally on Aug. 12, 2017, in opposition to their removal. The event turned violent as counterprotesters clashed with demonstrators on the street.

About two hours after police declared the event unlawful, ordering everyone to leave the area around the Lee statue, a person who came to protest the removal of the statues drove his car into a large mass of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 35 other people.

“I think that started with us in Charlottesville not running away from it,” said Wes Bellamy, a former Charlottesville council member who is now the chair of the political science and public administration department at Virginia State University. “It’s the power of people. I would like to see us continue to use that power to make systemic change across our state that’s not just surface level.”

Stoney had formed a panel earlier that summer to consider adding context to Monument Avenue. But removal of the monuments wasn’t on the table until after the violence in Charlottesville.

Northam, who was then running for governor, announced he supported the removal of Confederate monuments afterward, saying he would be a “vocal advocate for that approach.”

But even after Northam’s election, movement to remove the statues was sluggish.

Meanwhile, Virginia was becoming more racially diverse. By the end of the last decade, the number of people of color under 18 in Virginia had become the majority. Also, the population of people in the U.S. who identify as white alone declined for the first time in more than 200 years.

As the complexion of Virginia and the country was changing, incidents of police and other authorities killing Black people heightened racial tensions. The names of Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Atatiana Jefferson became rallying cries in the communities where they were killed and in countless protests across the country.

Richmond was no exception. The protests last summer energized calls for another look at the Peters case and for the creation of a civilian review board that could subpoena police records and hold officers accountable.

Pressure on Northam to act swiftly on the state-controlled Lee statue was amplified when a racist photo was uncovered in his medical school yearbook, prompting calls for his resignation. Northam nevertheless remained in office, but committed the rest of his time in power to addressing systemic racism.

When protests over police brutality broke out in Richmond after the killing of George Floyd and the movement found its epicenter at the steps of the Lee monument, the Northam administration announced that it would pursue the statue’s removal immediately. But a pair of lawsuits aimed at keeping Lee in place delayed the plan.

The state took down Lee more than a year after Stoney ordered the removal of the Confederate statues throughout the city, leaving Lee and tennis great and humanitarian activist Arthur Ashe the only ones left on Monument Avenue.

After protesters had toppled several statues in the city, including those of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and explorer Christopher Columbus, Stoney had contractors start removing the rest of the city’s Confederate statues on July 1, 2020, when changes the General Assembly made to the state’s war memorial law to let localities remove them went into effect.

That Lee was the final Confederate statue on Monument Avenue to come down is also symbolic of how reverential attitudes about Lee and the city and state’s Confederate heritage have changed in recent generations, said James Reeves, a Washington-based historian and author.

Reeves, who recently wrote a book about how Lee had been indicted for treason by the U.S. government but never tried, said Southerners lionized Lee in the decades after the war because of a few notable military victories and his personal reservations about slavery. He noted that Lee had owned slaves despite claims that he disliked the institution.

Reeves said that adoration enabled Southerners to see a hero among themselves after suffering a devastating defeat.

“I think it’s incredible,” Reeves said in an interview Tuesday, the night before the statue was slated for removal. “It’s remarkable that this is happening in Virginia ... [because] it’s where this Lost Cause tradition started and where it was most vigorously promoted.”

In the minutes before Lee’s torso was torn from his legs, Riddick eyed the circle, the community space once reclaimed by Black people. Maybe this would be the catalyst to more monuments falling throughout the South, she said. More than 80 remain standing in Virginia alone.

And maybe Lee’s removal would carve a path forward for her to walk hand in hand with her grandchildren and tell a story of healing. Of unity.

Even so, Riddick said, the James River still serves as a divider between wealthier, white neighborhoods and Black residents pushed into low-income areas — a reminder that the legacy of the Confederacy would not be solely undone by the lifting of a 12-ton statue.

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