Richmond’s Confederate Monuments, One Year Later

I had never lived south of Brooklyn, New York, USA until about seven years ago, when I moved with my child to Richmond, Virginia. One of the most jarring aspects of the city – the former capital of Confederation – is Monument Avenue, the “cobbled” four-lane asphalt boulevard stretching about a mile and a half along a wide grassy median. lined with trees. Every few blocks, cars circle roundabouts where bronze statues on granite or marble plinths pay homage to those who fought for Confederation: JEB Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and of course, Robert E. Lee, whose one foot tall, 12 ton likeness hangs over the city. During the warmer months, the youngsters – mostly white – hang out on the medians, drinking, sunbathing, and playing cornhole.

Civic groups installed the monuments after the end of the Civil War, from 1890 to 1929, during a period of intense anti-black violence and the expansion of racist laws imposing segregation. Since then, Monument Avenue, designated a National Historic Landmark, has served as a constant physical reminder of a deeply rooted commitment to honor and promote Confederation and its cause.

Following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the monument to Lee has become a central target of protesters demonstrating against police brutality and anti-black racism. For nearly a year, people gathered at its base to participate in events and protests, branded it with graffiti and paintings, and planted offerings and signage that transformed the site. As the Asian American parent of a Blasian child (readable only as a black boy, especially here in Richmond), I have a special interest in these ongoing struggles. For almost a year, I photographed the events at the Lee Statue with my child by my side. He was 10 years old when the May 2020 protests began, and we’ve been in a lot of them. We have witnessed the transformation of what was once a rarely used grassy area around the statue of Lee into a space where people demonstrated, distributed food and drink, pitched tents and gardens, played basketball. ball, played music and built a library of free books. Artists screenprinted T-shirts and banners at the site and projected images of George Floyd (and many others killed by police violence) on Lee’s statue. From all over the city and surrounding counties, people have come together to collect the monument and revise what it means.

Protesters reclaim the monument to Robert E. Lee on June 30, 2020.
Photo: Chris Cyn

The national press quickly realized this. In October 2020, the New York Times Magazine named the statue of Lee “in its present condition” on most influential work of American protest art since World War II. In January 2021, National Geographic featured a similar photograph of the statue on the cover of its “Year in Pictures” issue – though she carefully explained that it “had the emphasis of 10 instances of the f-word that were visible”.

Less visible in the aerial and long shots of the monument were the paintings, photographs and signs posted around it recalling those who were murdered by the police. These ephemeral landmarks contrast with the bronze, marble and granite of the Lee monument. Perhaps their transience is an integral part of their power. The memorials of black life grouped around the monument offer ephemeral and fleeting counter-stories that challenge Confederate symbols and their formal conventions. Today, the majority of Confederate statues have been removed after protesters removed several in June and the city announced on July 1, 2020 that it would remove the rest. Richmond recently offered to replace the remaining baseboards with asphalt, grass or plants. Located on state-owned land, the statue of Lee has yet to be dismantled.

The images here are a selection of hundreds that I took during the hectic year as we walked in protests across town and walked and biked along Monument Avenue – our daily exercise during the pandemic. As a teacher of literary and visual texts, I am particularly interested in symbols and signs and their material effects, in the stories preserved and commemorated in monuments, and in attempts to intervene in the memory and transmission of the ‘history. At the same time, I am well aware that the struggle for statues does not replace the ongoing social struggles and that the removal of certain monuments does not mean that real and long awaited structural and systematic transformations have taken place. The images for me, as an insider and an outsider in Richmond, serve as a record of individual and collective attempts to tie the legacies of white supremacy to ongoing racism and to assert the potential for alternative futures.

A plantation and sign rename the Robert E. Lee monument in honor of Marcus-David Peters, a local teacher and graduate of nearby Virginia Commonwealth University, who was the victim of a Taser gun, shot and killed by police in Richmond in May 2018 during a mental health crisis. This sign was removed, presumably by counter-protesters, and one in honor of Peters was installed.

A painting by Marcus-David Peters, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

A memorial and offerings to Natasha McKenna, who suffered cardiac arrest after receiving four Taser injections while being transported from the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center to receive treatment for mental health issues. Although she was resuscitated on the way to the hospital, she was “determined to be brain dead and was taken out of the resuscitation system after five days.” She was pronounced dead on February 8, 2015. ”

This cardboard panel depicts Gabriel Prosser casually seated on the base of his own memorial, facing the statue of Lee. The text on the other side of the panel commemorates Prosser (1776-1800) for “planning [a] slave revolt in Richmond on August 30, 1800 ”, for which he was“ captured and executed by the state militia ”. He had “pleaded for the formation of an independent black state in central Virginia”. The sign connects the state militias used to control blacks enslaved to the police and contemporary anti-racist struggles to earlier insurgencies.

History Is Illuminating, an anonymous group of activists, artists and historians, has planted wooden signs that mimic the style of those displayed in the city at sites deemed historically significant. This one at the Jefferson Davis monument identified Davis as the only non-Virginian commemorated on the avenue and pointed out that Confederacy existed primarily to maintain slavery and not to defend the rights of states. The counter-demonstrators quickly disfigured and removed the signs.

A memorial to Aiyana MoNay Stanley-Jones, age 7 (July 20, 2002 – May 16, 2010). The panel explains that the 7-year-old was sleeping on a sofa next to her grandmother in their Detroit home when a SWAT crew, accompanied by an A&E crew filming an episode of a real crime show. , burst through the door. The leading “commando” fired a shot that hit Aiyana in the head.

Some of the spray painted graffiti on monuments, like “Rob[ert E. Lee], fucking lose [sic] ass “or” You lost, “scoffs at monuments’ attempts to glorify a mythical heroic Southern story. In that vein, this little plaque affixed to the Jefferson Davis Monument places the Confederacy second in the Civil War.

Between the landmarks of two black men murdered by the police, Ezell Ford and Philando Castile, a sign links the murder of Breonna Taylor to that of several other black and black transgender women, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, Na’Kia Crawford, Riah Milton , and Oluwatoyin Salau.

Many residents opposed the restoration and removal of the statues. Some have sought to restore monuments, clean, repaint and pour harsh chemicals to dissolve graffiti. This sign at the JEB Stuart monument warns people that the graffiti was removed with a slippery solvent.

On June 4, 2020, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that Lee’s statue will be removed. Four days later, after legal action was taken to keep the statue in place, a judge issued a ten-day injunction that prevented its removal. This painting of a panel posted in response to the injunction resists delays with “the people” continuing to move forward.

On June 10, 2020, protesters removed the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue from its pedestal.

In February 2020, Virginia state law gave local governments the power to remove or relocate Confederate monuments, effective July 1, 2020, and repealed the law that previously prohibited them from doing so. On July 1, 2020, citing public safety concerns, the mayor and city council of Richmond ordered the removal of a number of cannons as well as remaining statues of Confederate elders from city-owned land, including on Monument Avenue.

After more than 100 years, the Stonewall Jackson statue is being removed from Monument Avenue by the City of Richmond on July 1, 2020.

Others have left their own provocative tributes to Lee, including this bouquet and note: “Atlanta sends our love and respect to General Robert E. Lee,” which was left on August 11, 2020, the third anniversary of the violent white supremacist “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville.

Someone wearing a shirt for a local contracting company named Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States, watches the removal of the “Vindacatrix” statue, derived from the Confederate motto, Vengeful god (“With God As Our Protector”), at the top of the Jefferson Davis Memorial, July 8, 2020.

On January 25, 2021, a spokesperson announced that the state had erected a fence around the statue of Lee “to ensure the safety of visitors and workers as part of [the state’s] plan to prepare the site for the removal of the statue of Lee ”and stressed that the fence was not permanent. The statue remains with the fence. Signs on the fence read, “The Department of General Service will dispose of all items affixed or left on the fence. But a message is spray painted on the sidewalk in front: “Understand: We never leave.” “

Photographs by Chris Cyn

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button