In an open-air industrial area in Richmond, Virginia, lie the remains of Confederate statues.
The storage wasteland, whose exact location has been withheld for security reasons, is a carefully organized graveyard of America’s racist past. The remains of Gen Robert E Lee – glorified by a statue that is 60ft tall and was once the largest on Richmond’s Monument Avenue – takes up about half the space. In the background is a slab dedicated to “Stonewall” Jackson, who earned his nickname at the first battle of Manassas, fought only 30 miles south of Washington, DC at the start of the civil war (1861-65).
The stone and bronze generals and politicians were removed from the streets by the city council in the aftermath of protests that broke out in May 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Once the capital of the secessionist and slave-owning American south, Richmond recently transferred ownership of the fallen memorials to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.
It is now up to the institution to decide what to do with them.
Should they be returned to the streets, or destroyed? Should they be contextualized and put on display? Or perhaps the bronze should be melted down, with the hundreds of tons of marble and granite put to use elsewhere?
Mary C Lauderdale – the Black History Museum’s director of collections – is clear on two things: that the decision will be made “in agreement with the community” (“we’re already surveying the residents”, she notes) and that she doesn’t want the statues in the museum’s headquarters – a former barracks that housed Virginia’s first detachment of Black soldiers.
“[The statues] are too big for our space… [they] would require us to strengthen security against possible attacks by white supremacist groups,” she adds.
Another certainty is that the rush to tear them down will not influence the speed of the subsequent steps taken by the authorities. “It will take us a long time. I estimate at least five years, maybe 10,” Lauderdale explains, as she walks among the stone blocks that formed the pedestals of the monuments.
The statues were erected as part of a nostalgic rewriting of the past: an interpretation of the American civil war known as the “Lost Cause”, promoted by the descendants of the Confederate forces, who were defeated in 1865.
The statues are preserved as they were after the attacks that took place during the summer of discontent in 2020, decorated with graffiti invoking the Black Lives Matter movement. There are calls to defund the police and the names of victims who died in police custody.
Each dismantled element has a code so it can be easily reassembled if necessary.
The bronze figures at one end of the site are wrapped in white plastic material, reminiscent of a shroud, to avoid attracting the attention of drivers who use the nearby highway. Lauderdale says the museum’s staff worry about vandals, extremist groups and collectors of historical memorabilia.
Disassembly and storage was done by Devon Henry. In 2020, the contractor received a call from the then governor, Ralph Northam.
“I had to think about it a lot, above all, because of my family, because of the violence and hatred that sparked the controversy with the statues,” he explains. “In the end, I made up my mind: if we didn’t do it now – if I didn’t do it – perhaps what we descendants of enslaved people have been chasing for decades would never come.” Later, he learned that “two dozen companies” had rejected the offer.
Henry says that every time he was asked to remove a statue, the authorities gave him “24-hour security”. He had to go to work “wearing a bulletproof vest”. “Every time we removed one [statue], the calls and messages on the answering machine rained down with threats like: ‘Hello, we’re from the Ku Klux Klan; you knocked down our memories, now it’s our turn to go after you and yours.’ When this article is published, we’ll definitely receive a few more.”
His demolition job finished last December, when he removed the statue of Confederate Gen AP Hill, which has since been kept in the secret warehouse, with its head dishonorably stuck in a tire, waiting to be wrapped up in white plastic.
Hill was second-in-command of the Confederate army near the end of the war.
Henry estimates that he has dismantled 24 structures between Richmond and Charlottesville. In response to the “million dollar question” of what he would do with the monuments if the decision were up to him, he replies: “I don’t think they should be on the street in full view of my children. They cannot be taught without context that explains the racism that lies behind that glorification.”
The only monument of the lot currently on display in Richmond is at the Valentine – a local history museum situated downtown, which houses the collection of Mann Valentine, who became rich in the 19th century after inventing a tonic made from beef juice with supposedly curative properties. The Valentine also hosts the study of Mann’s brother, Edward, a sculptor who created the statue that is exhibited within the house: it depicts the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. It was toppled by protesters during the 2020 protests. Richmond residents now have a new perspective on Davis, who used to be perched above them. Today, at the Valentine, he is shown lying down, covered in graffiti, with his arms outstretched in what appears to be an imploring gesture. His forehead is dented from blows – a piece of tissue paper is stuck to his shirt collar.
Bill Martin – who has been in charge of the museum for the past 28 years – remembers that, when they decided to display the statue “without cleaning it”, they caused a noisy reaction. Many people expressed their disgust “for the lack of respect” on social media, or angrily called up the museum.
The exhibition is complemented by some panels that tell the story of “how did the monument come down?” There’s also an effective summary of what the Lost Cause wanted: “After Union won the civil war, supporters of the Confederacy developed the Lost Cause mythology to justify their loss. They waged this disinformation campaign through the news, in schools, and with monuments.”
These monuments, writes the historian Karen L Cox in the essay No Common Ground, “dominated the southern landscape for more than 150 years”. They still do: according to a report by the independent Southern Poverty Law Center, 2,089 Confederate memorials remain in the US.
In the museum, some sheets are distributed, inviting visitors to participate in a survey about the future of Richmond’s racist statues. There are six options: store them, relocate them – with or without context – exhibit them in a museum, reuse the material to create other works of art, or simply destroy them.
Martin shares his “surprise” to see that in the “limited scope polls” that have been conducted so far (with a sample of about 3,000 people), the percentage of African Americans who support the removal of the statues and the percentage of those to whom the matter “isn’t of concern” is very similar: around 40%. It’s the same percentage, he adds, that is observed within the white community. Those responsible for deciding on the destination of the monuments will work with this data, along with other surveys carried out online.
For now, the immediate destination of the Davis statue is clear: in the fall, it will travel to Los Angeles, where two of the city’s museums – Moca and Laxart – are preparing an exhibition that will display toppled Confederate monuments from around the country, alongside works by contemporary African American artists.
A longer version of this article was first published in El Pais
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