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Overdue Reckonings


Lee Monument pedestal June 5, 2020 (my photo)

In June of 2020, Richmond's Fan District residents found themselves living at the epicenter of a cultural earthquake. The demonstrations that erupted in reaction to the murder of George Floyd set loose a spirit of outrage that brought on a reckoning. So it was last summer that a long overdue reckoning appeared, then chased most of the city's Confederate statues off of their pedestals. 

Like many others who grew up in the shadows of Richmond's Confederate memorials, for years I had hoped the time for celebrating the so-called "Lost Cause" and for tolerating its foundation of lies would expire during my lifetime. However, as it turned out, though stubborn to the end, the era ended abruptly, a year ago -- kaput!     

When the self-appointed statue-removers of June 2020 pulled down the Jefferson Davis statue, naturally it was seen as an anti-Confederate statement. That, as well as an anti-racism statement. However, upon reflection, now it seems likely more was in the air. After all, Davis had been on his grandiose Monument Avenue perch since 1907.


As it happened, the night before the toppled Davis bronze hit the pavement, a partying mob yanked the Christopher Columbus statue from its plinth in William Byrd Park. Then the statue itself 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 rather mirthful tone of the occasion for anyone to see. 

In my view that act of defiance was not just spotlighting Columbus' much-tarnished image as a heroic figure in history. It says here that an aspect of those two unauthorized statue-removals was a rejection of the whole concept of forced reverence. A good part of the energy for this widespread rejection seems to be coming from 16-to-35-year-olds who appear to have developed a William Tell attitude. Somewhat like Tell, the 14th century legendary Swiss archer, when they find themselves gazing upon 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 well on its way out.    


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, for decades, ran Virginia's political organization that ruled -- the ultra conservative, anti-union, pro-segregation Byrd Machine. 

Yes, that Byrd. 

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

On June 8, 2021, the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments aimed at blocking the removal of the statue of Lee. The plaintiffs want the Court to reverse Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to take down the state-owned memorial. The Court's decision seems likely to be revealed soon.

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.

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, let's remember, public art doesn't always have to be a 3-D depiction of a person (usually a man) striking a corny pose.  


Hopefully, we're approaching the day when most Richmonders easily accept that because of last summer's cultural earthquake the city took steps toward a brighter future. Yes, some good things happened. And, in a charged atmosphere with such upheaval underway, many bad things that could have happened, didn't happen. 

Now a special challenge is facing us: Once the 131-year-old Lee statue is removed there are decisions to be made about the future of the Lee Monument's graffiti-adorned pedestal. That, as well as the surrounding grassy circle that picked up a new name last summer -- the "Marcus-David Peters Circle." That site's integral role in the 2020 story of chasing off some Lost Cause and Jim Crow haunts is something worth commemorating.  

At the very least, that circle could become another of the Fan's distinctive little parks -- a place for a peaceful respite for travelers on foot. Maybe with a fountain? Anyway, if we're lucky, wise and creative heads will eventually make the right call on the fate of the pedestal and the circle. 

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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Overdue Reckonings


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