The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protesters transformed Richmond’s Robert E. Lee memorial. Now they mourn the loss of their most powerful icon of resistance.

Workers erect scaffolding around the pedestal that once held the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond this month. (Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — The memorials are nestled in white tissue inside boxes in a state warehouse. Ribbons, plastic flowers, photographs, a crystal angel — each tribute to a life cut short by violence had been left at the foot of this city’s giant statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during the 2020 summer of protests against racial inequity.

The figure of Lee finally came down in September, cast aside as a relic of the racist Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Its 40-foot stone pedestal was transformed by graffiti into an icon of protest and resistance, recognized around the world. But now it, too, is being dismantled, block by block.

Soon all that will remain at the center of Monument Avenue is a sweeping circle of grass.

Lee statue is taken down in Richmond after months of protests

For some, like protesters eager to see the last remnants of Lee disappear and nearby residents who are weary of disruption, that counts as victory. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) has called for a “clean slate.”

But others who lived through the extraordinary events of 2020 say something precious is being lost. In this city of monuments, a new one had been created, hailed by the New York Times Magazine as the most influential protest art of the post-World War II era.

“The statue came down. That’s one thing. I felt like our voices were definitely heard,” said Paris Somerville-Cox, 35, who was arrested during the height of the protests for violating a city curfew. But the pedestal and the space around it “felt like home,” she said. “Seeing it go is kind of sad for me. That’s where we met up before protests. That’s where we felt like family, we felt like we could come together and be understood when the world couldn’t quite understand us.”

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Some say the removals fit a pattern of neglecting the physical legacy of African American history, from Richmond’s historic unmarked Black burial grounds to the disruption of the booming Black business district of Jackson Ward by highway construction in the 1950s.

“That space has a lot of meaning to it,” said Princess Blanding, who became an activist and third-party gubernatorial candidate after her brother, teacher Marcus David Peters, was killed by Richmond police during a mental health crisis. “By removing that pedestal,” she said, “it’s a way of completely erasing it and making it as if none of that ever happened.”

City and state officials say they are working behind the scenes to find a way to memorialize what happened there. As the pedestal is being dismantled, each piece is being catalogued in a way that could enable it to be reassembled, perhaps at a museum. But the magic of the place that activists renamed “Marcus David Peters Circle” was never just about stones and paint.

“It was the most heartwarming community space with endless generosity,” said Joan Gaustad, 73, a Richmond artist who has published a booklet with photos of the vibrant graffiti on the statue. “I don’t know if we’ll get that back.”

The first stone came off the giant pedestal around 10 o’clock Wednesday morning under chilly gray skies. A handful of quiet bystanders watched as workers on scaffolding pried off a granite block and hoisted it with a crane. Unlit Christmas decorations sagged on surrounding houses, a couple of police cars idled nearby, traffic whizzed around the giant circle.

A little more than a year ago, crowds had gathered almost every day around the monument and its spray-painted messages of rage, anguish and hope. People made speeches on the steps. Gospel choirs sang. Dozens of small homemade memorials to victims of violence went up around the pedestal, each with a sign explaining a life cut short.

Volunteers set up tents to register voters and hand out food. Someone lugged in basketball hoops for pickup games. A man called Bee the Gardener tended a plot of vegetables and flowers. Projection artists flooded the pedestal with images at night.

“This was our altar space. This was where we came to be together and do the uprising, you know?” said Lil Lamberta, 40, earlier this week as she raised a George Floyd banner and watched workers assemble scaffolding around the giant structure.

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It was Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police that triggered protests around the country in 2020. The Lee monument became the “nexus point” for expressions of grief over many forms of violence against people of color, said Ana Edwards, leader of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, which works to preserve African American heritage sites in Richmond.

“But it was also a place where people came to celebrate that we also have this capacity to actually love and support one another” and to ask “why isn’t that what we’re centered on,” Edwards, who is Black, said.

Somerville-Cox vividly remembers one night early in the summer of 2020 when protesters at the monument were feeling hungry. Someone showed up with pizza. Someone else brought coolers with drinks. Neighbors from surrounding homes — some of Richmond’s most elegant and historic addresses — came out with food, utensils, plates.

“It gave me hope for humanity. It showed we can all come together, all races, all faces,” Somerville-Cox said. “I just remember, like, looking around and just taking it in and just like, man, I want to feel like this every day.”

But there were problems as well. Guns became a common sight around the circle, and White defenders of Lee sometimes showed up at night to taunt the protesters or to whitewash the graffiti. Residents complained of feeling unsafe and reported incidents of people urinating on their property.

The state of Virginia, which owns the site, abruptly pushed out the protesters in January and installed a tall fence around the circle. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was fighting a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Virginia that aimed to keep him from removing the statue, and his office said it wanted to be ready to act as soon as the justices ruled. The case dragged on until September.

A small miracle and anticipation of protests in wreckage of Richmond

That period effectively killed the circle’s role as an outdoor civic forum. A small handful of protesters still kept vigil most days on a nearby median strip, but the space around the statue sat unreachable. The day before the Lee statue came down in September, state workers emptied the circle of all the weatherworn makeshift memorials.

“They stole [the memorials] like they steal everything else,” said Autumn Nazeer, 40, part of the group who regularly stands watch near the circle. “It’s like salt on an already open wound. It’s like something that we made beautiful, something that actually defies the systemic racism in this country.”

In fact, state workers viewed themselves as preserving the memorials. Dena Potter and Killeen King of the Virginia Department of General Services mapped out the site, assigned coordinates to each item and carefully placed them into labeled bags the night before the Lee statue came down.

A few days later, archivists from the Library of Virginia dried, cleaned and catalogued the items, storing them in tissue and some 35 cardboard boxes. They now sit stacked in a state warehouse just outside Richmond, next to the giant metal sign that had proclaimed the spot “Marcus David Peters Circle” and across from pallets of surplus school desks.

In one large, flat box, the face of 15-year-old Quawan Charles peers out from under tissue, his likeness on a poster marking his death under suspicious circumstances in 2020 in Louisiana. Other boxes hold candles, stuffed animals, laminated signs, glittery ribbon.

On Friday, as workers continued prying up stones back at the monument, Potter reached for a box labeled “N5 N6” that denoted two sites from the north side of the statue.

“Isn’t this the one with the little angel?” she said.

“No, I think that’s this one,” King replied, hoisting another box.

“Oh, this one had the crown,” Potter said, opening her box to show a silver plastic tiara.

For now, Potter said, “all we can do is preserve it.”

The state’s agreement to take down the pedestal is a condition of deeding ownership of the site to the city of Richmond, which it agreed this month to do. Beyond that — and with a new administration coming to the State Capitol in January — the fate of the artifacts is unclear.

Asked about the monument, a spokeswoman for Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) referred The Washington Post to remarks he made Wednesday in a radio interview: “I have been so clear that, that we can’t, we can’t airbrush away history, and I am really committed to making sure that the monuments that have been removed, the pedestal, end up in a museum or on a battlefield so that we don’t lose our history.”

Many residents who live near the circle are eager to move on. “I’m glad the pedestal is coming down,” said Janice Hall Nuckolls, whose home looks out at the site. “As important as the base is to people of the [Black Lives Matter] movement, it is also a lighting rod for other people that are offended by the hateful and profane graffiti. The statue is gone. The novelty has worn off. The base just looks tired and bit of an eyesore now.”

Residents grapple with Confederate legacy along Richmond street

Every so often a plane flies overhead trailing pro-Confederate banners, such as “God Bless Robert E. Lee.” A Confederate heritage group called the Virginia Flaggers has taken credit, and it put out a statement after Northam’s decision to remove the pedestal, charging that the governor’s “divisive and spiteful actions confirm that the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and their woke ‘social justice’ rioters who are now in charge, are afraid Old Virginia won’t stay Reconstructed as long as General Lee is still around.”

Mike Kemetic, who rode his bicycle to the site this week on his way to work, said he believes the pedestal in its current form is a powerful reminder of resistance to police brutality and a host of other social injustices. “And you know, they haven’t really done a whole lot here in the city to really address that, which is kind of what led up to all of this in the first place,” he said.

Kemetic, 48, who is Black, works for community aid groups to empower young people in some of Richmond’s poorest neighborhoods, like the Gilpin Court public housing project. “Nothing’s really changed over there,” he said. “A lot of those kids don’t even come down this corridor, so they don’t feel any of the benefits of, you know, not having these looming images” of Confederate statues.

To Lawrence West, who founded a group called BLM RVA and visits the site almost every day, the monument has become a “battleground” that creates friction. He’s happy to see the pedestal removed, he said, as long as the fence surrounding it also comes down and people can once again assemble in the circle.

West took off from work Wednesday morning and was one of the few bystanders on hand to watch the first stones hoisted away. It was a testament, he said, to the power of persistence.

“That is awesome. That is awesome,” he repeated, as a crane lowered a block of granite. “It feels like in Bible times, ‘Mountain, be thou removed and cast into the sea.’ That’s the mountain.”