In Richmond, Towering Symbols of 'Psychological Terrorism' Fall
Reporting for this story was by Roberto Roldan and Craig Carper. Additional audio provided by Steve Humble and Crixell Matthews. It was written by Catherine Komp, edited by Sara McCloskey, voiced by Craig Carper and mixed by Ian Stewart. Digital editing by David Streever.
At a special meeting Wednesday morning, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney asked City Council members to back the immediate removal of Confederate monuments. He said they pose a risk to public safety because of the pandemic and attempts by protestors to take them down.
“It's just time. Since the end of Richmond's official tenure as the capital of the Confederacy some 155 years ago, we have been burdened with that legacy,” said Stoney. “The great weight of that burden has fallen on our minority residents, our people of color in the city, but also placed the weight on all of our brothers and sisters who saw the unmet potential for Richmond become an international example of a diverse, compassionate, and inclusive community.”
Stoney said he believed he had the authority under the current State of Emergency to remove them on his own. He attempted to get City Council to vote on the resolution right away, but that isn’t allowed by local law. The Council voted to revisit it the next day.
But about an hour later, heavy machinery appeared around the Stonewall Jackson statue on Monument Ave and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. The mayor had made his decision.
Surprise Removal Draws Hundreds
Crews used a crane and giant cherry picker to reach the top of the 130-year-old bronze statue, and tied heavy duty straps around the horse’s body. The growing crowd kept their eyes on the work to remove the statue safely.
City Council member Michael Jones was there, showing his daughter the scene through video chat. He told VPM, he stands with the mayor.
“Three years ago when we started this, wasn’t a lot of people standing with us,” said Jones. “So these are all the people standing with me today, and so I’m standing with them, we’re standing together. It’s humbling to be a part of history.”
Jones, and city council member Stephanie Lynch, have both recently pushed to have the Confederate monuments removed. Through tears, Lynch said the removal was symbolic of the legislative work underway to undo systemic racism in the former Capital of the Confederacy.
“Richmond is no longer the Capital of redlining. It’s no longer going to be the Capital of evictions. It's no longer going to be the Capital of incarceration. We have so many systems and institutions that we need to continue to work on,” Lynch said.
Trauma Lifts, As Symbols of Racism Fall
Musician Beth Almore was seated in a folding chair with her cello, as the crowds swelled. She’s a music teacher at Richmond Public Schools and has been playing at the Lee statue regularly. She said the Confederate statues are psychological terrorism.
“I think it's a very great day that they’re coming down. I know that this is not the end of the story in terms of the search for social justice but it’s an extremely powerful symbol. I think that’s obvious by the fact that there were armed white supremacists here just a few days ago trying to defend it. So clearly symbols matter,” said Almore.
It was also an emotional afternoon for State Senator Jennifer McClellan, who said it didn’t seem real until she walked up.
“I never realized how much emotional energy I spent ignoring them because of the trauma that they caused and when I saw this, I feel a wave of relief that I don’t have to do that anymore. I’ve cried at least once,” said McClellan.
The skies darkened and the crowds thinned a bit, but the crew kept at it. And after about three and a half hours, as thunder punctuated the moment, the statue of Stonewall Jackson was lifted off its pedestal. As the rain poured down, the bells from Richmond's First Baptist Church rang out.
The statue of Jackson was laid on a flatbed truck, and taken to a secure site. The removal came on the same day a new state law went into effect giving localities the authority to decide the fate of war memorials. Richmond’s City Council will meet in the coming weeks to deliberate the future of the Confederate monuments, those removed and those still standing.