|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 here that erupted in reaction to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis gathered a spirit of outrage and focused it on a local controversy about old Statues. Once galvanized, that spirit chased most of the city's Confederate statues off of their pedestals, pronto.
Like plenty of others who grew up in the shadows of Richmond's Confederate memorials, I had been hoping for a long time the era for tolerating the galling platform of lies that supported the "Lost Cause" viewpoint would end during my lifetime. It was stubborn to the very end, but now it's easy to see that a year ago it ended.
When last summer's self-appointed statue-removers pulled down the Jefferson Davis statue that blatant act was naturally seen as an anti-Confederate statement, as well as an anti-racism statement. However, upon reflection, now it seems to me more was at work. After all, Davis had been atop his imposing Monument Avenue perch since 1907 ... then poof!
Immediately, folks all over town started marveling at how easily the relic came down. Richmond's most mocked statue was kaput. Then the air cleared and the City began removing Confederate statues. Since last summer's purge of statuary it has been plain to see that those around here still noisily pushing the Lost Cause mindset have now become a wee minority.
However, as it happened, the night before the toppled Davis bronze struck the pavement, a partying mob yanked the Christopher Columbus statue from its plinth in William Byrd Park. The Columbus statue was then dragged down a hill and dumped in the park's Fountain Lake. Still 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' now tarnished image as a heroic figure in history. Part of what prompted those two unauthorized statue-removals was a rejection of the concept of forced reverence that was in the air.
A good part of the energy for that rejection seems to be coming from 16-to-35-year-olds who now appear to have developed the modern equivalent of a William Tell attitude. Somewhat like Tell, the 14th century legendary Swiss archer, when they find themselves confronted by today's equivalent of Albrecht Gessler's hat, they simply can't stand being compelled to show it respect.
Fast-fowarding to more recent times, with his taking-a-knee gesture, Colin Kaepernick was right. Forced reverence should be challenged.
As a Richmonder who has lived near the Robert E. Lee Monument for a long time and has given the subject of public art some thought, it looks to me like the era in which most people have had a sort of automatic sense of respect for heroic sculpture depicting yesteryear's political celebrities is on it last legs.
In March of 2021, Gov. Ralph Northam signed the law (which passed overwhelmingly in the General Assembly) 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 statewide political organization that ruled -- the ultra conservative, anti-union, pro-segregation Byrd Machine.
On June 8, 2021, the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments aimed at blocking the removal of the statue of Lee, still presiding at Allen Avenue and Monument Avenue. The plaintiffs want the Court to reverse Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to take down that state-owned memorial. The Court's decision seems likely to be revealed soon and we'll see what follows.
Meanwhile, the Byrd statue was hauled off on July 7th. Which demonstrated that the quake of cultural change which began on the Fan District's streets last year is now being felt by most of Virginia's most powerful politicians.
What to do with all the statues currently in storage is being studied. It should be and there's no good reason to rush to apply an artificial deadline. When it comes to considering the installation of new statues of whoever happen to be popular today, let's not rush into that either. It's also worth remembering that public art doesn't always have to be a 3-D depiction of a person (usually a man) striking a corny pose.
Hopefully, by now most Richmonders have accepted 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. That should be seen as to the city's credit.
Now a special challenge is facing us: Assuming the Lee statue is eventually removed, there are weighty 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 central role in the story of chasing off 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 come upon the right call to make concerning the fate of the pedestal and the circle. And, as we wait to learn what's shaking with the mammoth 131-year-old Lee memorial, we can already say with a smile, "Goodbye Columbus and bye bye, Byrd."
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