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A Reckoning, Long Overdue

Lee Monument pedestal June 5, 2020 (my photo)

In June of 2020, Richmond's citizens were living at the epicenter of a cultural earthquake.
In the wake of demonstrations that erupted coast-to-coast, reacting to the murder of George Floyd, most of Richmond's Confederate statues were chased from their pedestals. Last summer in Richmond it was the righteous spirit of a reckoning, long overdue, that did the chasing.

When the time for lifting up and celebrating the Lost Cause ran out in this city, it ended abruptly.    

Then on Mar. 19, 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the law to banish the statue of Harry F. Byrd from the grounds of Capitol Square. That's the same Harry F. Byrd who commanded Virginia's only political organization with statewide power for decades -- the ultra conservative, anti-union, pro-segregation Byrd Machine. 

Yes, that Byrd. 

The decision to remove Byrd seems a clear sign the quake of change that started on the Fan District's summer streets was being felt this spring in Virginia's halls of power. Byrd's statue has stood where it is (at this writing) since 1976. It will be removed at a time yet to be determined, some time after July 1, 2021. Where all the statues that have come down over the last year will end up is yet to be determined, too.


When last summer's self-appointed statue-removers pulled down the Jefferson Davis statue, naturally it was seen as an anti-Confederate statement. That, as well as an anti-racism statement. However, style-wise, I happen to think more was in the air. After all, Davis had been on his Monument Avenue perch since 1907. Why now?

Well, just the night before a partying mob yanked the Christopher Columbus statue from its plinth situated across from the tennis courts in William Byrd Park. Then the statue was dragged down a hill and dumped into the park's Fountain Lake. Photos and videos of the rude ceremony showed up on Facebook, which documented the mirthful spirit of the occasion for all to see. 

In my view that joyful act of defiance was not just about a recognition of Columbus' much-tarnished image as a heroic figure in history. Moreover, I'm saying that an aspect of what happened in Byrd Park and on Monument Avenue the night after, were rejections of the whole concept of forced hero-worshiping. 

A good part of the energy for this startling change seems to be coming from 16-to-35-year-olds who appear to have developed a William Tell attitude, of a sort. Somewhat like Tell, the 14th century legendary Swiss archer, when they find themselves passing today's equivalent of Albrecht Gessler's hat, they simply can't stand being compelled to salute it; perhaps it bruises their dignity.

As a Richmonder who has lived near the Lee Monument for a long time and has given the subject of public art some thought, it looks to me like the era of everyday people having what has amounted to an automatic reverence for public displays of heroic sculpture -- depicting selected political celebrities -- is passing.  

After last summer's series of statue-removals, two Confederate memorials remain on display in the public way. They are Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. A.P. Hill. At this point, it seems likely they both will be removed soon.  

This morning (June 8th) the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments aimed at blocking the removal of the statue of Lee by having the Court reverse Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to take down the state-owned memorial. The Court's decision seems likely to be revealed in weeks.

What to do with all the statues in storage is being studied. It should be and there's no good reason to rush to apply an artificial deadline. For the time being, the most important thing is they are no longer looming over public streets.  

Eventually, somebody is bound to try to put together a theme park, using secondhand Confederate statues. What to do with the pedestals is being studied, as well. Good. No doubt, care should be taken to make sure that in each case whatever replaces a Confederate memorial is generally seen as a step in the right direction. 

Therefore, maybe installing new statues of people who happen to be popular today isn't really the best idea for tomorrow.  

For what it's worth, here's a noteworthy thought: Public art doesn't always have to be a depiction of a person (usually a man) striking a corny pose.  

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The most interesting challenge, decision-wise, concerns the future of the Lee Monument pedestal, as well as the grassy circle around it that picked up a new name last summer -- the "Marcus-David Peters Circle." That site has become an integral part of the story of the exorcism of Richmond's Lost Cause haunt. 

At the very least, that circle could become another of the Fan's distinctive little parks -- a place for a peaceful respite. Then, if we're lucky, wise heads will make what will prove to be the right call on the fate of the pedestal. 

Meanwhile, as soon as it's practical after July 1, 2021, it's bye bye, Byrd.  

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This post first appeared on SLANTblog, please read the originial post: here

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A Reckoning, Long Overdue

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