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Emancipation and Freedom Monument unveiled in Richmond, one of few nationwide commemorating enslaved people

Gov. Ralph Northam (D), state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) and others look at Richmond’s newly unveiled Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Wednesday. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The man stands 12 feet tall, eyes closed in what might be pain or transcendence, chains falling off his outstretched arms, scars striped across his muscled back. Opposite him, a woman on a pedestal cradles an infant and thrusts a document into the air, her face calm and resolute.

With those figures in the forefront, Richmond unveiled a new Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Wednesday — commemorating a far different set of rebels than the Confederate statues that have been coming down for the past year.

Just two weeks after the titanic effigy of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was removed from Monument Avenue, city and state officials dedicated a monument that honors the struggle for freedom and equality by centuries of African Americans.

Robert E. Lee statue is removed in Richmond after months of protests and legal resistance

In addition to the large symbolic figures, the monument features names and likenesses of five Black Virginians who fought for equal rights and five who resisted the bonds of slavery. Among the latter group are Nat Turner and the man known as Gabriel, both executed for planning or carrying out slave rebellions.

The figures are “symbols of a Virginia that is reckoning with ugliness and inequality — a Virginia that’s taking a deep, hard look into what we need to do better and how to get there,” Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said to about 200 people gathered on a rain-soaked morning. “These statues are symbols of hope, of freedom and of the enduring will to fight for that freedom.”

Richmond — the former capital of the Confederacy and once the nation’s second-biggest market of enslaved people, after New Orleans — is now one of only a handful of U.S. cities with monuments to enslaved people.

Located downtown on Browns Island, a public event space along the James River, the massive monument has been a decade in the making and cost about $1.1 million — $700,000 from state funds and the rest from private donations.

Its goal is to depict something far more complicated than just the promise embodied by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, said state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), head of the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, which oversaw the project.

“Emancipation was not a moment. It was a movement,” McClellan told the crowd Wednesday. That movement took centuries, from enslaved people’s acts of “rebellion, resistance and self-liberation,” she said, through the long battles against Jim Crow, Lost Cause mythology and the inequities that persist today.

As rain fell steadily and as speakers competed with the clang and rumble of a slow-passing coal train, McClellan noted that even the circumstances spoke to the theme of resilience. “And we will continue to push on until the words of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and equality apply to all,” she said.

In the capital of the Confederacy, a new monument and a chance to change the narrative

The monument is a bold addition to a city where as recently as 2003, some residents viewed a statue of Lincoln and his son Tad as an offensive Yankee intrusion.

Even after Charlottesville’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally around a statue of Lee in 2017, a commission appointed by Richmond’s Black mayor to consider the fate of Confederate statues failed to lead to any changes.

The tide began to turn in 2019, when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts installed “Rumors of War,” a sculpture that mimics Confederate equestrian statues with the figure of a young Black man astride a horse.

But wholesale change came only after last summer’s social justice protests, triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of more than a dozen Civil War monuments, and Northam called for the Lee statue to come down, triggering a court battle that delayed removal until earlier this month.

Lee is the only Confederate icon still standing on a Richmond avenue forever changed

On Wednesday, an ebullient Stoney hailed the sweeping turn of events. “The monument that we will unveil today will withstand the test of time,” he said. “Richmond and Virginia have come a long way. And while there is so much work left to do, we are moving in the right direction . . . to a more inclusive and equitable future.”

Invoking the city’s role in the founding of the nation, he noted that “the enslaved built this city with their hands, [but] we will rebuild this city with our hearts.”

The 10 names engraved on the base of the new monument were selected by the MLK commission from more than 100 submitted by the public. In addition to Turner and Gabriel, they include figures such as Rosa Dixon Bowser, an educator and women’s rights activist who died in 1931, and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a colleague of King’s in the civil rights movement who died in 2018.

The sculptures were created by Oregon artist Thomas Jay Warren and reviewed by historians to ensure accuracy, McClellan said.

After Wednesday’s unveiling, a soaked but joyful crowd milled around the towering figures. Omilade Janine Bell, who had performed an African libation ceremony at the start of the program, stood staring up at the woman, who faces south, and the back of the man, who faces north.

“Her facial expression,” she said, pausing to find the words. “The femininity but the determination that is there. I don’t want to say defiance — but just a statement that ‘I am.’ ”

As she got into the spirit, Bell began to speak for the figures. “I’m holding this child, who is a symbol of our future. I’ve gone through who knows what to get here. But we are here now, and we ain’t going nowhere.”

And the man: “With welts on my back, we are strong, and we are beautiful.”

Off to the side, Cheyanne Woodard said she felt a personal connection to the statues. Like other Black families, she said, her people had migrated from Virginia to New York during the 20th century, then ultimately returned. Woodard, 24, grew up in Virginia and now works at Richmond’s American Civil War Museum.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “It gives hope, and it’s very freeing. A testament to where we want to be, not only as a state but as a country. . . . It just shows how Virginia really wants to redefine herself.”

This month, Woodard had watched the removal of Lee. And now this: the unveiling of a much more human set of figures — man, woman and child.

“My ancestors were actually sold here, in Virginia,” she said. “So this is a nice, coming-full-
circle moment. Because I see myself as that baby.”

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