Richmond's racist past awaits its future in pieces in a wasteland next to the river that runs through the capital of Virginia.
EL PAÍS recently accessed that secret place on the condition that it not reveal or give clues about its location for security reasons.
There, in an open-air factory zone, the remains of the Confederate statues removed from the streets by the City Council have ended up, since the protests over the May 2020 murder of the African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis summoned an iconoclastic wave that went around the world and a pop quiz to the historical memory of the United States.
An image of George Floyd, projected onto the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond, in June 2020. JAY PAUL (Reuters)
They were erected as part of the nostalgic rewriting of the past known as the Lost Cause, promoted by the descendants of the defeated after the Civil War, during which Richmond was the capital of the rebellious and slave-owning South.
The city of 230,000 transferred ownership of those fallen memorials to generals and politicians to the Virginia Museum of Black History.
It is now up to those responsible to decide what to do with them.
Should they return them to the streets or destroy them?
Expose them contextualized?
Or melt down the bronze and use the hundreds of tons of marble and granite for higher purposes?
Mary C. Lauderdale, director of visitor services at the institution, is clear on two things: that the decision will be made "in agreement with the community" ("we are already doing surveys among the neighbors," she warns) and that she does not want them in the museum's headquarters, a former barracks that housed Virginia's first detachment of black soldiers.
“They are too big for our spaces and that would require us to strengthen security against possible attacks by white supremacist groups,” she adds.
Statue of AP Hill, the last Confederate to fall from his pedestal in Richmond last December.Lenin Nolly
Another certainty is that the rush to tear them down will not mark the next steps.
“It will take us a long time;
I estimate at least five years, maybe 10″, Lauderdale explains as he walks among the stone blocks that formed the pedestals of the monuments.
They are preserved as they were after the attacks of the summer of discontent in 2020: there are Black Lives Matter graffiti everywhere, calls to defund the police (Defund the Police) and names of notorious victims of the officers, so the place It is also a testimony of those turbulent months.
The place exudes a solemn air;
It is not by chance that the workers who guard the warehouse call it “the cemetery”.
Mary Lauderdale, of the Virginia Museum of Black History, on January 24 in Richmond.LENIN NOLLY
It is a carefully organized graveyard of America's racist past.
The remains of General Robert E. Lee, glorified by a statue that reached 60 feet and was the largest on Monument Avenue, take up about half the space.
In the background is the parcel dedicated to Stonewall Jackson, who earned the nickname “stonewall” at the Battle of Manassas, fought about 150 kilometers north at the beginning of the Civil War (1861-1865).
Each piece incorporates a code, which would be used to reassemble the monumental puzzle if necessary.
The bronze figures are at the other end, wrapped in a white plastic material reminiscent of a shroud.
They covered them to avoid giving clues to the drivers of the cars that every day use the neighboring highway, one of the access arteries to the city.
They worry, Lauderdale says, about vandals, extremist groups and collectors of historical memorabilia.
The statues were painted during protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Lenin Nolly
Disassembly and storage was handled by Devon Henry, a young black contractor.
In 2020, he received a call from the then Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, to offer him a commission that no white businessman had dared to accept.
"I had to think about it a lot, above all, because of my family, because of the violence and hatred that the controversy with the statues unleashed," he explained to EL PAÍS in a social center on the outskirts of the city.
“In the end, I made up my mind;
If we didn't do it now, if I didn't do it, perhaps what the descendants of the enslaved had pursued for decades would never come.”
Later, he learned that "two dozen companies" rejected the offer before he did.
Henry says that every time he was asked to remove a statue, the authorities gave him "24-hour security" and that he had to go to work "wearing a bulletproof vest."
In addition, he took out a weapons license to feel "protected."
“Every time we took one down, the calls and messages on the answering machine rained down with threats like: 'Hello, we are from the Ku Klux Klan;
you demolished our memories, now it's our turn to go after you and yours'.
When this article is published, we will surely receive a few more.
Devon Henry poses at the Sarah Garland Jones Civic Center in Richmond.
Henry is the only contractor who dared to accept the commission to remove the racist statues.
He had to go to each of the jobs with a bulletproof vest.
Now he is willing to “turn the page” and dedicate himself to “more constructive” tasks, such as getting the house of Richmond's first black owner back on its feet.
His demolition job finished last December, when he
the statue of Confederate General AP Hill, which has since lain with the rest in the secret warehouse, with its head dishonorably stuck in a tire, waiting to be wrapped in the white plastic.
Hill was a second in the southern cause, but it took them so long to deal with him because his remains were buried under the pedestal, and that delayed the operation.
His indirect descendants, who have sued the city over ownership of the statue, were buried on a recent Saturday in Culpeper Cemetery, a Virginia town north of Richmond.
The ceremony was attended by hundreds of supporters of the Confederacy, many of them dressed in the manner of the Civil War.
Burial of the remains of General AP Hill at Fairview Cemetery in Culpeper on January 21, 2023. Peter Cihelka (AP)
To the "million dollar question" of what he would do with the monuments if the decision depended on him, Henry, who calculates that he has dismantled 24 structures between Richmond and Charlottesville, a city in Virginia that to
has chosen to melt and reuse the materials , answers: “I don't think they should be on the street in full view of my children.
They cannot be taught without a context that explains the racism that lies behind that glorification.”
The only one of the lot currently on view in the city awaits at The Valentine, a local history museum downtown that houses the collection of Mann Valentine, who became rich in the 19th century on a tonic made from beef juice. supposed curative properties, as well as the study of his brother Edward, a sculptor associated with the iconography of the Lost Cause and author of the statue that is exhibited in the institution.
It depicts Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and was torn down by protesters during the 2020 protests. (They also toppled an effigy of Columbus, which ended up in a pond; the city just donated it to the Virginia Italian-American Cultural Association.)
Richmond residents now have a new perspective on Davis, who they used to look down on.
In The Valentine he is shown lying down, covered in graffiti, with his arm outstretched in a suddenly imploring gesture, his forehead dented from blows and a piece of Kleenex stuck to his shirt collar.
Bill Martin, who has been in charge of the institution for 28 years, remembers that when they decided to expose it like this, "without cleaning", it caused a noisy reaction from people who expressed their disgust "for the lack of respect" on social networks or by calling the phone. to the museum he runs.
Jefferson Davis statue at The Valentine Museum in Richmond.
It is the only one that is exposed to the public at the moment.
The decision to do so without first cleaning it drew criticism from those nostalgic for the Confederacy.
The exhibition is completed by panels that tell the story of "how the monument ended up in the ground", as well as an effective summary of what the Lost Cause intended: "After the war, its sympathizers forged that mythology to justify the failure.
They launched a disinformation campaign in the media, schools, and based on building monuments”.
These, writes 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 nostalgic vestiges remain under the Mason-Dixon line, which divides the country geographically and mentally.
In Richmond, the seated or horseback generals fell, but the callejero is still far from its complete
: they still remain, for example, the Robert E. Lee Bridge or Confederate Avenue.
There is also a standing statue of Stonewall Jackson.
It is in front of the Capitol, on land owned by the State of Virginia, governed by Republican Glenn Youngkin.
Promoters of the Lost Cause, "a reflection of a culture of violence and white supremacy," according to Cox, downplayed the horrors of slavery and tried to deny it as a
They tried to pass off the Confederates as heroes and secession as a legal act.
“Those ideas infiltrated everyday life during the Reconstruction [post-war] years and the Jim Crow [legal system that later perpetuated discrimination in the Southern States], ultimately changing the way the one who, even today, remembers the past”, can be read in The Valentine.
It is no less ironic that those losers who tried to rewrite history have succumbed to the push of a very different class of losers: the victims of systemic racism in the United States.
In the museum, some sheets are distributed that invite you to participate in a survey on the future of racist statues.
There are six options: store them, relocate them, with or without context, exhibit them in a museum, reuse the material to create new works of art or, directly, destroy it.
Martin shares his "surprise" to see that in the "limited scope polls" that have been done so far (with a sample of about three thousand people) the percentage of African-Americans who support the removal of the statues and to whom the matter "does not they are concerned” is very similar, around 40%.
It is the same percentage, he adds, that is observed in the white community.
Those responsible for deciding on the destination of the monuments will work with this data, and with other surveys carried out on the Internet.
For now, the immediate future of the Davis statue is clear: in the fall it will travel to Los Angeles, where two museums in the city, MOCA and LAXART, are preparing an exhibition that will display retired Confederate monuments throughout the country along with works of contemporary African American artists.
A LAXART spokeswoman explained in an email last week that the idea came before the death of George Floyd, "following the actions of white supremacists in Charleston in 2015 and Charlottesville in 2017."
In this last town, the plan to withdraw its Confederate monuments was answered with a racist march that left three dead and marked the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump.
The director of The Valentine would be willing to permanently house the statue of Davis that he now displays in his museum when it returns from Los Angeles.
“It is important to us;
both to tell how [sculptor] Edward Valentine contributed to the Lost Cause, and because it is pure history of what happened in Richmond in 2020. She was the first to fall.
It's a very powerful item."
Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui, from Reclaiming the Monument, projected images of George Floyd and illustrious figures from African-American history on the General Robert E. Lee monument during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
In the image, they pose where that statue once stood, today an empty and fenced roundabout.
His work went around the world.
It is for Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui, who remember those days vividly.
They participated in the protests from the beginning, but everything, including their lives, changed when they had the idea of projecting messages from Black Lives Matter onto Lee's monument, which had already been vandalized, first, and, after a few weeks, photos of victims of police violence and key figures in African-American history, from Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass.
The images from that project, which they titled Reclaiming The Monument, went around the world and turned Richmond into a global symbol of the anti-racist crusade.
Today, the square where the gigantic statue, which protesters renamed after a police victim (Marcus-David Peters), stood empty and fenced off, waiting to be turned into a garden.
Lee was, in 1890, the first to place himself on Monument Avenue, a lucrative real estate operation in the heat of the Lost Cause.
(Then, John Mitchell, a prescient local journalist, editor of the
Richmond Planet newspaper,
wrote: "The Negro -sic- raised the monument to Lee. And the day will come when he will be there to tear it down.")
The last memorial on the street was unveiled in 1925. Klein, of Reclaiming the Monument, smiles as he recalls that today only one foot of a great man remains on Monument Avenue, a statue unveiled in 1995 amid protests by white supremacists honoring the legend. local tennis player Arthur Ashe (1943-1993), who was the first African-American to win Wimbledon.
General Lee was also meant to be the first to go, but ended up being the last on the avenue to disappear, because Governor Northam's June 2020 order was delayed a year by a lawsuit from "very wealthy and very older”, which, explains Criqui in the place from where they made the projections every night, “did not want to lose the historic district tax exemption”.
The case was resolved in the Virginia Supreme Court.
In order to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, the torso of the horse had to be separated, so that it could be transported to the warehouse where it is now kept in two separate pieces.
In the image, the disassembly operation, on September 8, 2021. JIM LO SCALZO (EFE)
Criqui is in favor of showing the statues "with the complete story".
“Without cleaning them, or fixing them.
These objects tell us about some white supremacists who lost the war and tried to win another: the war of memory.
We grew up with those lies, and eventually the city ended up rejecting them and the image of Richmond as that little place where the ideals of the Confederacy were still alive was shaken ”, he warns.
That racist Arcadia ended up turning into a mostly African-American city.
The demography of Richmond, whose population has grown by 15% since 2010, has turned around in recent years: due to a gentrification process accentuated by the pandemic and teleworking, the black community has gone from being the majority (57% in 2000 to ) to majority-minority (45.2%, compared to 44.8% whites in the last census).
It is also a young population, whose average age is 34 years.
"The new generations and newcomers demand that we review the past and retell it," says museum director Bill Martin.
Thinking of them, they installed another equestrian figure on a pedestal in the city.
It represents a black man with Nikes.
(Rumors of War)
is signed by the African-American artist Kehinde Wiley and has welcomed the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, one of the most interesting in the South of the United States, since shortly before the pandemic.
Wiley, author of the most famous portrait of Obama, has built his successful career based on representing his people in the way that the great masters of ancient art reserved for kings.
'Rumors of War' (2019), statue of Kehinde Wiley at the gates of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA).LENIN NOLLY
The bronze and stone monument sports a gesture similar to that of another retired statue in Richmond, that of the military JEB Stuart, and looks askance at the headquarters of the United Daughters of Confederacy (Union of Daughters of the Confederacy).
Founded in 1894, it is estimated that the organization of female descendants financed in the first decades of the 20th century between 450 and 700 monuments of the Lost Cause.
During the riots of 2020, the fortress-like venue came under attack, and now sports “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs and an African-American guard blocks visitors.
Its director, Jinny Widowski, did not respond to this newspaper's request for comment, but on her website she signs a letter that says: “We are saddened that there are people who find anything related to the Confederacy offensive.
Our ancestors were and are Americans.
We, as an organization, do not judge them, nor do we impose 19th century standards on 21st century Americans.
It is our sincere desire that our great nation and its citizens continue to allow (...) the descendants of Confederate soldiers to honor the memory of their ancestors.
As much as their final destination is still unclear, it does not seem likely that the Richmond statues will return to "their place", as Widowski wants.
For now, they await their luck in the secret warehouse on the other side of the river, where the unpleasant odors emanating from a nearby factory come from time to time.
It could be the ultimate act of poetic justice: the site is also in an area where, in the years before the war, slaves from Africa were rounded up before being transferred to the city for sale.
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