The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Richmond takes down its last major city-owned Confederate memorial

The statue of Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill was taken down Dec. 12. Hill’s remains beneath it are set to be relocated. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Parker Michels-Boyce/Reuters)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill had no children. He has no direct descendants. The article has been corrected.

RICHMOND — A bronze statue of Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill — this city’s last major icon of the Lost Cause — rode away Monday strapped to a cushion of old tires in the back of a flatbed truck. But the remains of the general himself remained embedded somewhere in the base of the statue’s stone plinth, and workers continued to search into the chilly afternoon.

The statue had surrendered easily. Workers cut a bolt holding it in place and a crane hoisted the figure into the air by 9:45 a.m., less than an hour after trucks had assembled in the busy intersection where the monument stood.

Then it was a matter of disassembling thousands of pounds of granite blocks and digging out concrete and stone filler from inside the base to look for a crypt. Workers from a local funeral home stood by to take over once the remains were located.

The presence of Hill’s grave had complicated the removal of the monument, for which planning began more than two years ago. Since 2020, more than a dozen other Confederate monuments around this historic city have been removed, as social-justice protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis finally forced Richmond to confront its memorial landscape.

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Mayor Levar Stoney arrived Monday morning to watch the work, and after the statue came down said removing the final city-owned Confederate statue would “turn the page and start a new chapter for our city of Richmond.”

The former capital of the Confederacy is now almost free of Lost Cause iconography in public spaces — an outcome that seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.

“This is the last stand for the Lost Cause in our city,” Stoney said last week after a judge swept aside an effort to claim the statue by a group of people who said they were Hill’s indirect descendants.

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A law passed by the General Assembly in 2020 allowed localities to take down Confederate statues, which up until then had been protected. But the Hill monument’s status as a grave caused the city to go through a lengthy process to get legal permission to clear the site and then arrange for the remains to be relocated.

Traffic-control barriers were ready early Monday, but workers had waited for the morning rush to clear and for classes to get underway at a nearby elementary school before closing off the crossroads of Hermitage Road and West Laburnum Avenue on Richmond’s North Side.

That’s a different part of town than the famous Monument Avenue, where a titanic state-owned statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee became an international symbol of the 2020 protest movement — but the area around Hill has a history of its own.

The school facing the intersection is named for former governor Linwood Holton, a Republican honored for integrating Virginia’s schools who was also the father-in-law of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). Until recently, Kaine lived two blocks over from the statue on what used to be called Confederate Avenue; residents petitioned the city last year to scrap the racially charged name, changing it to Laburnum Park.

Devon Henry, the Black contractor who has overseen the removal of almost all of Richmond’s Confederate monuments, said late Monday that he did not expect to uncover Hill’s remains by dark. Andrew Bennett Morehead of Bennett’s Funeral Home in Hanover County said he expected to return Tuesday morning to take care of that task.

Once the remains are found, Morehead said, workers will transport them to Hill’s hometown of Culpeper. The city of Richmond purchased a burial plot there for $1,000. “Everything will be handled with the utmost dignity and respect,” Morehead said, adding that he does not believe the monument should have been taken down.

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“It’s history,” said John Hill, 33, who said he shares an ancestor with the general. Hill said he drove eight hours from his home in Ohio to watch the statue come down and was part of the group of family members who had challenged the monument’s removal in court.

“We just don’t want to see it destroyed because that’s a headstone with our family name on it,” Hill said. He wore a sweatshirt with a dramatic Confederate battle scene and the phrase, “Don’t make me open up my can of Robert E. Lee.”

But Richmond resident Emmett Jafari, 68, a Black man who said his family has been in the city since 1860, said it was long past time for Hill and his Confederate brethren to come down. “When they put them up, my people didn’t have any rights,” Jafari said. “To take them down shows there is a reckoning in our society.”

What Richmond loses in divisive symbolism it gains in traffic safety, as the need to navigate around the Hill monument has made the intersection one of the city’s most dangerous. By the end of the week, city officials said, the site should be cleared and paved like any other crossroads.

Liz Turner, 60, a nanny who lives a block from the statue, had come out with a small group from the local civic association with coffee and doughnuts. Turner said she was glad to see the Confederate symbols come down, but that she had also spent years working to get that intersection cleared for traffic.

“I don’t care who’s buried there — Mickey Mouse, General MacArthur, Saint Peter himself — I don’t care,” she said. “I want people to be safe at this intersection.”

A few prominent Confederate symbols remain in Richmond — most notably a trio of statues on Capitol Square outside the state Capitol. The administration of then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has said it was too focused on getting the Lee statue down to take on the Capitol Square statues, which would probably require action by the General Assembly. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has shown no interest in picking up the baton, with a spokeswoman saying via text that the governor believes “we must resist the movement to cleanse our history. The decision to remove the statues were decisions made by previous administrations/politicians.”

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Hill’s remains were brought to the site in 1891 when the area was a rural part of Henrico County. Developer Lewis Ginter created the memorial to promote his new suburban neighborhood, later annexed by the city.

Hill, who was killed by Union troops outside Petersburg in the waning days of the war in 1865, had been buried in two other spots before being dug up and reinterred here. He had once said he did not wish to live to see the Confederacy fall, and he didn’t. But his statue saw its symbols disappear.

It has long been rumored that Hill was buried standing up inside the base of the monument. But news accounts from the time suggest that while he might have been vertical in one of the earlier burials, by the time he got to this spot the remains were little more than bones and tattered cloth.