© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As Lee pedestal comes down, the question how to display altered monuments comes to the fore

Workers install scaffolding as they prepare to remove the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Monday Dec 6, 2021, in Richmond, Va. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the pedestal removed and the land granted to the City of Richmond. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/AP
A man holds a child at the monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va, . There's a legal battle over removing the Lee statue, but few here expect it to survive the re-energized anti-racism movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

Work to remove the pedestal that held up the statue of Robert E Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue started Monday, underlining state and city officials’ challenge of displaying the removed monuments, especially those altered by protestors.

Workers removed the gigantic statue of Lee, who commanded the Confederacy’s army in defense of slavery, three months ago. The statue’s final home hasn’t been decided yet.

Northam made the announcement Sunday after reaching a plan with the City of Richmond.

After removing the pedestal, the circle of land on Monument Avenue, which once hosted several monuments to the Confederacy, will be conveyed to the City of Richmond. City officials had long asked for the land to return to the city.

In a written statement Sunday, a spokesperson said the circle’s future would be determined through a “thoughtful and community-rooted planning process.”

The question of how, and if, to redisplay the Lee statue and other confederate monuments is a stand-in for the debate over how to memorialize the continuing legacy of racism in Virginia.

The area around the statue was reclaimed by protestors during the 2020 protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by police. The sit-in, in what the protesters renamed "Marcus David Peters Circle," after a Black man killed by Richmond police in 2018, and graffiti of the statue turned it into a nationally recognized symbol of protest and pushed officials to act on promises to remove it and other Confederate monuments.

The graffiti also turned the monuments and their pedestals with graffiti into new works of art.

The Valentine Museum in Richmond’s interest in the Jefferson Davis statue stems from how it was toppled and painted by protestors.

“The Valentine's interest remains with Jefferson Davis in its altered state,” said Bill Martin, the Director of the Valentine Museum. “It documents that particular moment in Richmond’s history.”

The pedestal that held up the statue of Robert E Lee in its altered state is arguably now more of a monument to sit-in at the traffic circle than it is to the Lost Cause.

“How do we mark that moment?” said Martin. “How do we mark the moments that happened on the circle and how do we use our museums and other institutions of history to think about and discuss the meaning of what's happening today?”

Governor Northam says he was completing the removal of the statue in its entirety.

“We want to make sure that it's preserved. We want to make sure that it can go into a place where it's safe,” he said at a stop in Roanoke. “This is kind of the completion of what I had initiated long ago. The statute was taken down. Now the pedestal will be taken down, and now the city of Richmond will be able to decide with input from the community or how we can best make Monument Avenue a welcoming street.”

Northam’s plan is to have the work on the pedestal “substantially completed” by December 31st, two weeks before Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin takes office. Work started Monday (ambi up).

While the land under it will be transferred to the City of Richmond. But the statue and its pedestal will remain under state control. Youngkin says he hopes the statue of Lee is moved to a battlefield or a museum. A spokesperson didn’t respond to a question about what he’d like to do with the pedestal.

Martin says that when a museum puts up an object, there are a number of considerations.

“You always have to acknowledge the context of an object: how it was made, who made it and what conditions required it's removal.”

Youngkin, who ran on a pro-law enforcement platform, now could inherit a 60-foot monument to resistance to police violence, unless the Commonwealth completes its disposition of the statue and its pedestal by January 15th, when Youngkin is inaugurated.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.