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Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Statue Is Gone. Now It’s Up to the City to Shape What That Means

11 minute read

In the final moments, there were cheers.

On Wednesday morning in Richmond, Va., as a crane dislodged the 12-ton statue of Robert E. Lee, Confederate general and icon of a much mythologized chapter of U.S. history—a period defined by treason and bloodshed but often described in more flowery and misleading terms—the crowd chanted in a way usually reserved for sporting events.

Removing the 60-ft.-tall Lee monument from the carefully manicured parkway known in this city as Monument Avenue marked the final, and some say most substantial, change to Richmond’s landscape in more than a century. The elimination of one of the largest and arguably grandest monuments to a Confederate military or political leader in the United States, a statue that had stood in the former capital of the Confederacy for 131 years, was an event most experts and at least one observer described as symbolically significant. But, they also characterized it as a gesture that can only be given lasting substance by what happens next.

“Even though Robert E. Lee was an inanimate object…of stone and granite, stone and bronze, it was a weight taken off the city’s shoulders today—particularly the shoulders of Black and brown people, who for over 100 years have had to toil under the shadow of one of the largest, tallest Confederate statues in the country,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told TIME, speaking in the hours after the statue’s removal. Stoney, a Black man born in New York but raised on the Virginia coast, became the city’s mayor in 2016. He had stood in a designated viewing area near the Lee monument and watched a massive crane and its crew bring the sculpture of Lee on horseback toward the ground that morning. “For me, today was an emotional day because in all my years as a resident of this city and as the mayor of this city I never thought I would see a day when all of the confederate statuary would be removed from Monument Avenue. And I’ve got to say it’s been a long time coming.”

The Lee monument, a state-owned site and object, was the 15th and last of the Confederate statues that once punctuated the broad street that divides east and west traffic in Richmond. That thoroughfare once formed an unofficial dividing line between what are still largely segregated white and Black sections of the city. The city took steps beginning in July 2020 to remove 14 other statues in its control. Today on Monument Avenue, only a statue of Arthur Ashe, a pioneering 20th Century Black tennis champion and philanthropist born and raised in Richmond, remains.

In June 2020, shortly after the death of George Floyd, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a public official who may be best known for having admitted then denied that he appeared in blackface in yearbook photos, announced a desire to oust Lee from Monument Avenue. The Lee monument had become a focus of protest activity. Litigation, which came to an end last week, stymied those plans. And so, with the statue still standing as protests related to police accountability and the persistence of racism in American life roiled the country, the Lee monument became a kind of canvas for frustrations and political statements. Artists projected images onto its stone base. Protesters gathered there to emote and draw attention to the way in which white supremacy continues to guide American policy, and to alter the monument with graffiti.

Read more: Confederate Monuments and Other Disputed Memorials Have Come Down in Cities Across America. What Should Take Their Place?

And so the news that the Lee monument would come down Wednesday came as neither an entire surprise nor a gesture without meaning to those who have looked closely at race in American life.

People have objected—often at great risk—to Confederate statues in Virginia since they began to punctuate the landscape about three decades after the American Civil War’s end. Among those who voiced public objections were some of the Black men who were elected to state lawmaking bodies during Reconstruction but ousted as the federal government retreated from Southern states.

“I think that many of us now realize that the removal of statues, while it’s an important symbolic act, is merely a symbolic act,” says James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. During Grossman’s tenure, the association has pushed those in charge of school curriculums to abandon much of the mythology that obscured the well-documented fact that the Confederacy formed in order to hold most Black Americans in perpetual bondage. (Grossman, whose research expertise is African American history, is white.) Misinformation about the Civil War’s causes, and interpretations of facts that recast the Confederacy as honorable, remained a part of some school books near the end of the 20th century. Grossman compares belief in that “Lost Cause” myth to belief in false claims that COVID-19 vaccines include microchips: Professional historians—experts who have examined documents and information generated by people involved in the conflict—don’t debate the central role of slavery in the Civil War. Politicians and ill-informed people with public platforms do, Grossman says. And yet still today, multiple state legislatures have moved to prevent accurate descriptions of the American past from being taught in schools.

Read more: ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History

“These statues symbolize the ways in which white supremacy and systemic racism survived the Civil War, survived emancipation and have really existed now for nearly one and a half centuries,” Grossman says. The decision to venerate Lee in particular has meaning that should not be overlooked, he explains.

Lee remains a favorite of those who insist the Civil War was about something other than slavery, because, unlike other Confederate leaders and military officials, he wrote about his early sense of conflict about secession and described his ultimate decision as a matter of honor, allegiance to Virginia and the concept of a state’s right to rule it’s own affairs, Grossman says. Lee also fits the physical and social image of a Southern gentleman—educated at West Point, born to a once wealthy plantation-owning family and married to a descendant of the wife of George Washington. But in the documents that lay out the reasons the Confederate states ultimately rebelled, it’s slavery that appears again and again as the primary driver. And, in the public speeches and statements of other Confederate leaders, the desire to organize society and the economy in support of white supremacy is also a constant theme. To Grossman, Lee’s decision to lead an army that waged war against the United States is also particularly damning, as he was a serving member of the U.S. Army who resigned and ultimately led the military arm of a treasonous revolt.

Genreal Robert E. Lee statue taken down in Richmond, Virginia
The statue of Confederate General Robert Lee is removed at Monument Avenue on Sept. 8, 2021 in Richmond, Va.Andrew Lichtenstein—Corbis via Getty Images

But after the war, beginning in the 1890s right when the Lee statue was erected in Richmond, Lee and others were venerated not simply because people in the region knew and admired them. Rather, the move was part of what Grossman describes as a white propaganda campaign to challenge the social and economic change that had been set in motion during the brief period of federal protection of Black Americans’ civil rights. A combination of mythmaking and brutal violence was often deployed to stymie that change. Across the South, well into the early 20th century, groups ranging from local governments to bake-sale-funded civic organizations helped to erect statues like the ones that once lined Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

Even then, there were some Black Americans, including in Virginia, who objected to the celebration of Lee and other Confederates in public spaces.

“Ever since the defeat of Reconstruction by white terrorism, this has been an issue,” says Grossman. “But we have not yet reversed all of the things that have happened since then. So, what is to be done now that we have made this symbolic statement, now that we have recognized that the Confederacy did not win the Civil War? These are not heroes. These are not people to be admired, and the world that they defended is not to be admired. How do we create a different world? That’s our challenge.”

Those challenges are what attracted Andre Perry’s attention to Richmond in 2020. Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Black economic mobility. As images of the Lee memorial appeared in the news, and as reports of protest activity in Richmond ebbed and flowed, Perry and his team began to look closely at life in the former capital of the Confederacy. What they found is a city, much like others around the country, where race remains a deeply influential element of life.

“In a lot of these cities we look at the moment of protest, but we don’t see what people are protesting about, particularly after the crowds leave,” Perry says.

Read more: America’s Racial Awakening Forces Virginia Military Institute To Confront Its Past—And Future

People may not see that something is terribly amiss when the percentage of Black Richmond residents with a bachelor’s degree sat in 2019 around 25%, versus the nearly 45% of white Virginia residents who have a college degree, Perry says. They don’t necessarily see the over-policing of Black adults or the grossly uneven school suspension rates that leave disproportionate numbers of Black children temporarily barred from schools. People don’t know, or perhaps don’t care, that fewer Black people living in Richmond and the rest of the state could in 2018 say they own their homes than did so before federal law banned discrimination in home lending in 1968.

But that was the situation in 2020, as so much frustration and anger seemed to be poured out on the Lee statue.

“I think it became such a focal point for people to express their frustration with these monuments of hate, of sedition,” says Perry, a few hours after the statue was removed. “I understand why people made sure that they added their mark to what eventually became a fallen, manufactured hero.”

But Perry, who is Black, worries that too many people fail to understand how the same thinking that prompted cities to venerate men like Lee is what stands in the way of stripping away what remains of white supremacy. To Perry, it’s that same logic that has undergirded government policies that marooned many Black residents in specific areas of the city and devalued property in those communities. It’s the logic that makes too many cities unable or unwilling to address the fact that green space is today more scarce and temperatures higher in those once marooned communities but environmental toxins more plentiful, Perry says. It leaves too many residents of Richmond and other cities at peace with uneven health care and wellbeing, and with the fact that school funding via taxes reflects home values. Richmond is one of the places in America where all of that is evident in data detailing the lives of Black and white people who live in and around the city.

“When the mayor introduced the plan to remove the statues, it got such attention. And I didn’t want that to be the only thing that we talked about,” Perry says. “Don’t talk to us about toppling a symbol of white supremacy. Also talk about toppling some of the policies that resulted from that era…To really undo the policies that the Robert E. Lee statue represents you almost have to examine housing policy, education policy and also environmental impacts of past policy.”

That is work that Stoney, Richmond’s mayor, believes possible—but difficult.

“Symbols matter because they define who you are. They define how your community is seen,” Stoney says. He leads a city that has removed more Confederate iconography than any other in the country, he says. It’s part of what was necessary to help the city mature. And, Richmond and the state of Virginia have now illuminated a path for others to follow. “But also just as important, even more important I would say, is work to root out systemic racism that still resides in our government, in our health care system, in our education system, in housing that was also erected by the same people who erected these monuments like Robert E. Lee. It’s going to take more than a crane to remove that.”

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