“That’s a person who deserves to be a footnote in history,” said Almore, 53, a public school music teacher in Richmond. A photo of her great-great grandmother, born into slavery in Mississippi, rested on her music stand. “What concerns me is that if it takes this much effort to get a statue removed, what is it going to take to get systemic racism dismantled in this country?”
After a solid month of day-and-night protests, all four Confederate statues on city-owned property along Monument Avenue are gone. Only the grandest and oldest monument — to Gen. Robert E. Lee, which towers 60 feet over state-owned land — remains. A judge has so far blocked Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from removing it.
A national reckoning with racism and inequity, triggered by police killings of black Americans, has led to a final attack on Southern icons of the Confederacy, with the battle flag banned by NASCAR and removed from the state flag in Mississippi.
In Richmond, a group of well-heeled residents is fighting in court to save Lee, arguing in part that losing the statue will harm property values in an elegant section of the city. “It was mystical, magical to walk down the street any time of year,” said Patrick McSweeney, 77, a lawyer who grew up around the corner from the monuments and now is representing the property owners.
The popular effort to take them down, he said, is “worse than the Bastille,” the prison stormed by French revolutionaries in 1789.
But the voices that once defined the former capital of the Confederacy have become hard to find in the past month. When Mayor Levar Stoney (D) ordered a statue of Stonewall Jackson removed last week, one white man rushed the base of the monument, openly crying and begging for the work to stop. He was hustled away by sheriff’s deputies.
Instead, people who once felt unwelcome in this part of town have remade the avenue into a monument of their own. The granite bases of the statues are splashed with colorful graffiti — some profane and angry, some in memory of African Americans killed by police. But it’s the people — all ages, all races — who constitute the biggest transformation, filling public spaces that once stood grand and empty with speeches and music and chanting.
“I grew up around here. . . . Any time before the last month, you would not see a soul out here,” said one man, 25, who declined to give his name as he stood with an assault-style rifle in an encampment near the Lee statue on Monday. He said he feared reprisals from statue defenders, who sometimes appear in small groups at night, or from police.
“This is all love — all community coming together,” said the man, whose shirt read “Legalize Being Black.” Asked how his firearm fit in with a message of love, he replied that protesters have felt threatened and want to show that they have the same right to bear arms as anyone else.
For an older generation of African Americans, the statues represent a painful past that many had given up on reconciling.
“I think they should make them all mechanical and put quarters in them so the kids can ride them,” said a man who would give his name only as Michael, age 69. He said he grew up in Richmond’s public housing projects, and as a young man, “we didn’t come over this way, okay? If you were black, they would arrest you or call the cops on you if you walked on the grass out here on the traffic circle.”
Wren Vessel, who gave his age as “over 60,” grew up in rural King and Queen County and used to come to town with his father selling tomatoes, green beans and butter beans at the Shockoe Bottom farmers market. He recalled wanting a hot dog but being turned away from long lines at the “colored” entrance to a Richmond diner when he was too young to understand segregation.
The statues were like that, too, he said. At first, they just seemed like big works of art. Only recently has he grasped the history of racial injustice suggested by their presence. If black people had been given true equality after the Civil War, Vessel said, the statues might never have been built.
“My vision is for my grandkids and all people — not just my grandkids, but all kids regardless of race — that we have a more fair society,” he said. “And [that] the Constitution’s not just a piece of paper, but it’s something we live by.”
Keith June, 56, lives in Arlington but has visited Richmond for nearly 30 years, making a hobby of photographing the monuments. “Quite frankly, I never thought they would come down,” he said.
As an African American, June said, he grew particularly interested in Confederate statues after being stationed in Germany for the Army and watching that nation wrestle with its World War II legacy.
“It’s almost like the Civil War is finally ending,” he said this week at the Lee statue. “Some of this is generational. Some of this is, you know, Richmond is changing, our nation is changing.”
For many of the younger protesters, the statues are just the beginning.
Mikhail Smith, who is African American, said he grew up in Reston and came to Richmond in March after losing his bartending job to the coronavirus pandemic. The protests have given him a new purpose in life, he said, and sparked interest in a career in politics or the law.
“This is one of the things we were fighting for, why I’ve been out here for 30 days straight,” said Smith, who turned 26 on Tuesday. Watching Stuart fall, he said, “is like my birthday present to myself.”
At the same time, he said, he sees the dismantling of the statues as a superficial change and maybe even a distraction. “They’re making a big deal out of this to kind of take away from other things, like evictions,” Smith said, referring to the notoriously high eviction rate for low-income people in Richmond. “This is like painting an old car; it’s not really like getting a new one.”
Aaron Wade, 29, flew to Richmond late last month from Los Angeles to see the spectacle in the town where he was born and raised. He and his wife, who also grew up in Richmond, have been shooting film for a planned documentary.
“I didn’t want to miss a piece of history in my hometown. I couldn’t do it,” Wade, who is African American, said last week as he watched work crews dismantle the Maury statue.
The fall of the Jackson monument the day before was so dramatic — torrential rain, thunder pealing, church bells ringing — that “Spike Lee couldn’t have staged it any better,” said his wife, Maria Warith-Wade, 26.
Wade grew up in the east end of Richmond and attended a Catholic boys high school just blocks from the monuments. As a member of the school’s cross-country team, he ran down Monument Avenue all the time. “Going past a lot of these monuments, you know, you become numb to it because it’s so part of the ingrained history,” he said.
Warith-Wade said she had a very different experience. “I had parents that were very much into social movements and history,” she said, “and so I never had the privilege of seeing them as, you know, these beautiful things.”
Her family took her to historic sites around Virginia, she said, but always made sure she knew the full story. They went to Jamestown but also learned about Gabriel, an enslaved man who led a failed revolt in Richmond in 1800.
Warith-Wade said she tried to use those perspectives to see the statues from the point of view of the people who erected them. “The women of the Confederacy, I think that they really wanted to make something beautiful for what they believed in. And if I were in their shoes, maybe I would have thought that way — I don’t know; I’m not a white woman.”
Now, she said, there’s a chance to do something truly beautiful. “I really hope that one day, we’re able to see a lot of these spots on Monument Avenue reclaimed in a way that is welcoming to all the Richmond community.”