The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Robert E. Lee monument, other Confederate statues could go to Richmond’s Black History Museum under deal

After being removed from its pedestal in September, the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was cut in half so it could be taken away by truck. (Parker Michels-Boyce/For The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — City and state officials have reached an agreement to transfer ownership of the statue and pedestal of Gen. Robert E. Lee to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, which has also agreed to take possession of all the other Confederate memorials removed from Richmond since last year.

Under this arrangement, Richmond’s Black History Museum would work in partnership with the Valentine museum — which has chronicled the city’s history for more than a century — and local community members to determine the fates of the stone and bronze symbols of the Confederacy.

The deal requires approval by Richmond’s City Council. Mayor Levar Stoney — who hammered out some of the details with Gov. Ralph Northam (D) — said in a written statement that the arrangement enables the community to take a deliberate approach in reckoning with such divisive symbols.

“Entrusting the future of these monuments and pedestals to two of our most respected institutions is the right thing to do,” Stoney said in the statement, obtained by The Washington Post and planned for release Thursday morning. “They will take the time that is necessary to properly engage the public and ensure the thoughtful disposition of these artifacts.”

Since last summer’s racial justice protests, many cities around Virginia have removed Confederate memorials from public spaces. But they’ve often struggled to figure out what to do with the oversized artifacts.

Albemarle County drew criticism from social justice advocates for agreeing to send its “At Ready” Confederate soldier statue to a battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley, where it can remain on public display. The city of Charlottesville, on the other hand, sparked outrage from preservationists by donating its statue of Lee to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which plans to melt it down and create a new work of art.

Last week, two groups hoping to obtain the statue filed suit against the city of Charlottesville to prevent it being destroyed.

Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue will be melted down by city's African American history museum

But no city has more Confederate iconography to reckon with than Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy. The deal with the museums sets no parameters on what they can do with the materials.

“This is not who we are as Virginians, and we are moving on,” Northam said in a prepared statement. “Now, it will be up to the people of Richmond to determine the future of these artifacts.”

Marland Buckner, interim executive director of the Black History Museum, said in the release that his institution “takes very seriously the responsibility to manage these objects in ways that ensure their origins and purpose are never forgotten: that is the glorification of those who led the fight to enslave African Americans and destroy the Union.”

But he added that artifacts also provide an opportunity “to deepen our understanding of an essential element of the American story: the expansion of freedom.” The museum, founded in Richmond in 1981, plans to invite public input as it works with the Valentine to formulate a plan for each item, Buckner said.

The Valentine houses the restored studio of sculptor Edward Valentine, who after the Civil War created figures of some of the South’s most famous leaders. Museum director Bill Martin has proposed returning the toppled, damaged figure of Confederate president Jefferson Davis — hauled from its perch on Monument Avenue by protesters last year — back to Valentine’s studio, where it was created.

In addition to Davis and Lee, the other items being transferred to the Black History Museum include city-owned figures of J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and Fitzhugh Lee. There is also a statue of newspaper publisher Joseph Bryan, who fought for the Confederacy and used his presses to rail against Reconstruction, as well as a generic figure of a Confederate soldier and ceremonial cannons.

The pedestal of the Lee statue poses a particularly interesting challenge for the museums; last year, protesters used graffiti to transform the 40-foot granite plinth into an internationally recognized symbol of the fight for racial justice.

Northam ordered the bronze figure of Lee removed from atop the pedestal last year; it came down in September after a lengthy court fight with a handful of residents who sought to keep it in place. Some in the community had hoped the pedestal would remain as a new kind of monument, but Northam had that removed this month at the city’s request in preparation for transferring ownership of the site to the city of Richmond.

Along the way, workers found two time capsules at the Lee monument. The artifacts inside them — unveiled publicly over the past two weeks — are being studied and preserved by state conservators. Similarly, a trove of ad hoc memorials to Brown and Black victims of violence left at the foot of the Lee statue last year by protesters remains in storage at state facilities.

Under the arrangement being announced Thursday, the protest memorials would also be transferred to the museums, but the state would keep possession of the time capsule artifacts as they are being studied, according to Greg Werkheiser, a lawyer with Cultural Heritage Partners who has consulted on the deal.

The city has received numerous offers from parties who want to acquire the monuments it took down last year, which are being stored in an undisclosed location. Werkheiser said the new agreement would allow the museums to consider any of those proposals, as well as coming up with ideas of their own.

Engaging the museums creates a more “comprehensive dialogue” in the community about what should be done with the relics, he said. “There is also concern that the objects not be used again to promote a false historical narrative,” Werkheiser said.

In addition, many of the pedestals that supported the city’s statues are still standing, and it’s possible that they contain time capsules. Those, too, would be transferred to the museum, he said.