Northam (D) has asked the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to lead the Monument Avenue project, which will include other institutions and the city of Richmond. It is contingent on getting spending approval from the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
“This is potentially a model for other parts of Virginia, other parts of the United States [or] other parts of the world as people struggle with monuments — when to create them, when to take them down,” Alex Nyerges, the museum’s director, said in an interview. “What we hope is to create a vision that unites us and brings us together.”
Long a seemingly untouchable symbol of the old segregated South, the Lee statue has been reborn through this year’s eruption of public demonstrations over issues of race, triggered by the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and other unarmed African Americans around the country at the hands of law enforcement.
Weeks of protest left Lee and its 40-foot-high stone base bedecked with a riot of colorful graffiti. The pristine, grassy circle around it transformed into an open-air civics forum, with gospel choirs, daily speeches, voter registration booths and a public vegetable garden. At night, more sinister elements crept in, leading to armed confrontations between Black protesters and White counterprotesters and complaints of heavy-handed police tactics.
By year’s end, photos of the altered monument — often featuring projected images of Floyd or Black Lives Matter messages — had appeared in media worldwide as a symbol of the social justice movement. National Geographic magazine is featuring it on its cover for January, and in October the New York Times Magazine dubbed the monument the nation’s most influential work of protest art.
Aware of that status, Northam’s office still plans to take down the metal statue — though the fate of its stone plinth is an open question.
“Everything is on the table,” said Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, who has spearheaded the planning effort. “We want to be as bold and creative as possible and bring to bear the greatest minds, literally internationally.”
Northam announced on June 4 that he was ordering the removal of the monument, which occupies land deeded to the state in 1889. A small group of local residents filed suit to save the statue. In October, a circuit judge ruled in favor of Northam, but the removal is still on hold as the residents appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Even with a favorable ruling, Mercer said it’s likely to be several weeks or months into next year before the enormous statue could come down. And the planning for what comes next will take far longer.
While the Lee removal was held up by courts, four other Confederate statues on city property along Monument Avenue have already come down. Protesters toppled a figure of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney ordered work crews to take down the remaining three.
Northam’s proposal, then, is to reimagine the entire avenue, which is a grand residential promenade lined with architecturally significant homes dating back about a century.
The proposal carries an initial price tag of $750,000 for the planning effort and $10 million for implementation that the General Assembly would have to approve at its session that begins in January. The state is also approaching possible donors, Mercer said, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has pledged to spend a quarter-billion dollars helping localities reframe their historical monuments dealing with issues of race. The Mellon family is also a major benefactor of the VMFA.
Some in Richmond have raised the idea of Virginia deeding the Lee property back to the city, and Mercer said that will be explored. In the meantime, he said, “we owe a hand in helping figure out what happens with the avenue and quite frankly we also owe money to help.”
Stoney said he was grateful for the state’s role. “When I began 2020 I never, ever thought that the monuments would be removed from their pedestals and that the Lee monument would be reclaimed for good,” he said.
Having long said he favored taking down the statues, Stoney — who is Black — said he marveled at the way protesters have transformed the Lee monument.
“It just shows you what we can create as a community,” he said. “The art that you see on that granite is the work of spirited people who experienced not only the summer of 2020, but just channeling the injustices they may have faced in their lives.”
One part of the Lee project slated to get underway immediately involves replacing a time capsule that was laid into the granite pedestal in 1887. The contents are known to include a host of Confederate-related memorabilia — and, just possibly, a rare image of President Abraham Lincoln in his casket — but Northam’s office plans to remove it early next year.
The Valentine museum, which commemorates Richmond history, and the city’s Black History Museum have begun assembling a community effort to come up with items for a new time capsule to be installed at the site.
“The intent is to create something that reflects this moment in history,” said William J. Martin, director of the Valentine. He said the group hopes to have a more culturally inclusive time capsule ready by Juneteenth — the newly official state holiday that honors the end of slavery.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the stone pedestal of the Lee statue will remain, said Nyerges of the VMFA. “It’s a pretty powerful statement as it is,” he said. “But I don’t want to presuppose anything for this effort because I think it’s going to take a lot of very intense thought, soul-searching and creativity.”
Nyerges said his staff members will begin reaching out to art experts, historians, urban planners and others to guide their approach to the avenue as a whole. The museum has already put itself on the map in the world of reinterpreting monuments: A year ago this month, it unveiled “Rumors of War,” a statue of a young Black man astride a horse in the manner of a Confederate war memorial that drew widespread attention.
It was created by artist Kehinde Wiley, and Nyerges noted that the curators who worked on that project will also lead the Monument Avenue effort.
Local residents have already brainstormed everything from fountains to gardens to rotating works of art for the Lee circle.
“The neighbors know that it’s not going to happen quickly, and it needs to be done with a lot of thought,” said Alice Massie, whose home sits directly across the street.
Massie said a neighborhood group recently surveyed more than 200 households along the avenue and found that all but a handful support removing the statues. “The future should embrace a residential neighborhood that welcomes everyone,” she said.
Patrick McSweeney, a lawyer representing the small group blocking the statue’s removal, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Monument Avenue project is among four budget items Northam planned to announce Friday at 1 p.m. aimed at reckoning with the state’s troubled racial history.
The largest is $10 million for the city of Richmond to jump-start a plan for memorializing what was once the nation’s second-largest slave market in a downtown area known as Shockoe Bottom, including the remains of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail where many enslaved Africans were held.
Stoney has also pledged from $25 million to $50 million in capital improvement funding toward that effort, though the city has not finalized any plans.
Northam is proposing another $5 million for a project in King George County, near the town of Dahlgren, where scores of discarded headstones from a historic Black cemetery in the District have been found. The money would cover the removal of as many headstones as possible from riprap along the Potomac River and transporting them to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Md., as well as constructing a memorial on the shoreline where they were discovered.
Columbian Harmony Cemetery had been the resting place for thousands of D.C.’s most prominent Black residents from before the Civil War until 1960, when a developer bought the land and relocated the burials. Mercer said the state is also seeking contributions for the memorial project from other entities, including the Washington Football Team, whose FedEx Field stadium looms over the National Harmony cemetery.
Northam is also seeking $100,000 for site work at a proposed memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Richmond.