And the action was driven by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is working to overcome his own race-related scandal.
“It’s past due,” Gaylene Kanoyton, president of the Hampton branch of the NAACP, said Tuesday after a ceremony at the now-blank metal arch. “The first Africans arrived here at Fort Monroe, and it’s important we didn’t have Jefferson Davis up here. I mean, he was literally for slavery. So to have this taken down before the commemoration is monumental.”
This month, the commonwealth will host commemorative events at Fort Monroe to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans — just as it noted the anniversary of representative democracy at Jamestown last week.
The 50-foot ceremonial arch was erected at Fort Monroe by the U.S. Army in 1956 and paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It proclaimed “Jefferson Davis Memorial Park” above the stone casemate where Davis was held prisoner by federal troops after the Civil War.
But the fort — completed in 1834 and not decommissioned until 2011 — occupies even more ancient ground: It was originally Point Comfort, fortified by English colonists in 1609 and used as an arrival point for ships headed up the James River to Jamestown.
In late August 1619, a ship called the White Lion put “20 and odd” African prisoners ashore here, ushering in the era of slavery in what became the United States, according to historic documents.
“To have a memorial glorifying the president of the Confederacy, a person who worked to maintain slavery, on the same site on which enslaved Africans both first arrived here and were later freed, is not just inappropriate. It is offensive,” Northam said Tuesday at the ceremony.
Northam has been under a cloud since February, when a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook came to light. He first took responsibility for the photo, which showed one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb, then disavowed it — but admitted to wearing blackface for a dance contest the same year.
Many Democrats have called on him to resign, but Northam vowed to stay in office and work for racial equity. In the months since, he has met with African American leaders and community members, sought funding for areas such as education and affordable housing and drawn attention to issues such as maternal mortality among black women.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” Kanoyton said of Northam, adding that she “applauded” him for leading the effort to remove the Davis memorial. “He’s listening. He’s acting on the requests.”
In his remarks, Northam said the original archway was part of an effort to paint a “revisionist” version of history. “Many Virginians, including me, still have much to learn and relearn about the true and painful history of our commonwealth,” he said.
Northam had written in April to the authority that oversees the site, asking that the archway be taken down. After review and public hearings, trustees decided to leave the decorative arch but remove the letters. They came off on Friday.
New signs near the archway tell how it was built at a time when Virginians were embarking on “massive resistance” to avoid the integration of public schools, as part of an effort to intimidate and to glorify an oppressive past.
“This monument was a way of making a statement about the ‘lost cause’ never being forgotten. In many ways it stopped our efforts to move forward as a nation,” said Rex Ellis, an associate director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture who also serves as a trustee for the Fort Monroe Authority.
Ellis said taking down the Davis memorial was “the first significant” removal of a Virginia Confederate memorial that he was aware of. Virginia has more Confederate monuments than any other state.
The arch at Fort Monroe was especially poignant, Ellis said, because of the importance of the site. Not only did the first Africans arrive here, but their enslaved descendants built the fort itself. And then, in the early days of the Civil War, three black men escaped slavery and came to the federal troops at Fort Monroe seeking sanctuary.
The commanding general refused to return the men — Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory and James Townsend — to the slave owners who came to get them. After that, thousands of African Americans made their way to Fort Monroe to escape bondage during the war.
“That makes this a significant space and site to discuss African American history in a way that few historic sites can,” Ellis said. Honoring Davis in that setting, he said, was “anathema to the history that should be taught here. I think it was a great, great service that [Northam] did” in taking it down.
Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy had urged the authority to leave the memorial in place. A single protester was on hand to greet Northam on Tuesday, holding a sign that said “Save the monuments.” He called out “Governor Blackface” but was met with silence and slipped away during the officials’ remarks.
Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck, who is African American, took pains to point out in an interview that the city had nothing to do with the decision to remove the letters from the arch.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Tuck said. “Only because I represent a city that has 136,000 people, black and white citizens. There are some who feel that . . . there are movements afoot to remove all monuments to the Confederacy and trying to erase their history.”
But what’s important, he said, is to tell “the complete and accurate story” of history, and the monument itself did not do that.
“And, important for me personally,” he added, “had Jefferson Davis and like-minded citizens won the Civil War, then I very likely would not be the mayor of the city of Hampton.”