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State prepares to dismantle the pedestal where Lee's statue once stood

Pedestal with fencing and scaffolding around it
Crews put up scaffolding around the pedestal that formerly held a statue to Robert E. Lee and became a rallying point for anti-racist protesters in Richmond following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The state has begun the process of dismantling and moving the pedestal where Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Monument once stood. 

The decision was announced Sunday following negotiations between state officials and the city of Richmond.  On Monday, workers set up scaffolding as onlookers periodically stopped to watch and take photos. 

In the fall of 2020, the New York Times named the monument and pedestal America’s most influential work of protest art since World War II. People protesting police violence after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd started covering the monument in graffiti in June of 2020. The circle where the statue stood also became a community gathering place for many, dubbed the Beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle, in honor of a local high school teacher who was killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis.

Now that space will be transformed once again. 

Some local activists were relieved the pedestal was coming down before Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin takes office on Jan. 15. 

A founder and organizer of the anonymous group History is Illuminating, which erected historic markers at the circle during the 2020 protests, stood near the circle Monday.

“We kind of understand what's happening. We’re a little upset about it. But the reality of what’s going on is that we need to get this pedestal down and in the hands of museums ASAP before Youngkin can clean it,” they said. 

But they’re also worried about what will become of the property once the pedestal is gone. They have some concern about whether the city will respect the community's wishes. 

 

Jim, a local resident who did not want to give his last name, said it shouldn’t stay where it is even though he considers it a work of art. 

“It should belong in a place where it can be viewed as that,” he said. “But where it’s in the middle of a big intersection, it’s a giant second-place trophy to begin with, so it’s time to get something new over here.”

He would like to see a park. 

“If it’s just a bunch of swear words and a fence around it, I mean you can’t take kids around here,” he said. “It’s not adding much to the community.”

The state barricaded the circle in January 2021, preventing activists from gathering or continuing to deface the confederate symbol.

The once-vibrant layers of graffiti on the statue have already begun to fade from time and the elements.

Lawrence West and his group BLM RVA occupied the circle during the protests to ensure a constant presence. He said he sometimes had to physically defend the statue from efforts to clean or paint over the messages. And despite the evolution of the symbol’s appearance over the last two years, he said it’s still important. 

“This is a battleground,” West said. “And as it stands right now, it still portrays our expression from 2020.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Levar Stoney told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday that the mayor wants the pedestal to come down. 

“We requested the state finish the job it started with the removal of Lee, as we are doing with our own pedestals,” Jim Nolan said. “The mayor believes that the pedestal, or parts of it, can and should be preserved in a museum, not preserved in the middle of a street/neighborhood.”

The city said in a press release the property will be repurposed in a way that is in line with the Richmond 300 Master Plan.  The release said this will be determined through a “community-rooted” process.