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Lee is gone, issues remain: 'Removing these monuments does not remove the system'

Posted at 5:39 PM, Sep 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 08:58:38-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As the country's largest remaining Confederate monument came down from Monument Avenue, Reginald Carter said preparation and timing scored him a front-row seat to history.

“I got here about 7 o’clock,” Carter said while standing along a fence on the grassy median near the statue. “I got to pick my space and picked this because it’s right between the tree line and I got to see exactly when General Lee was removed.”

It only took crews about two hours to dislodge and lift the 12-ton bronze statue of Robert E. Lee off the pedestal it sat on for more than 130 years.

APTOPIX Confederate Monument Richmond
Crews remove the torso of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Placed in 1890, during a time historians said white Southerns began constructing intimidating memorials to the Confederacy and Lost Cause narrative, for many Black Virginians, the statue represented a towering homage to white supremacist policies baked into American systems.

“It was definitely emotional and surreal,” Carter said. “To me, it was a prophecy fulfilled of John Mitchell, who was the editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper founded here in Richmond in 1882 by 13 freed slaves. He said, ‘The Black man was here to put up the monument, and when the time comes, the Black man will be here to see it removed.”

Devon Henry, Freda Thorton
CORRECTS SPELLING OF LAST NAME TO THORNTON - Devon Henry, owner of the construction company that removed the statue, hugs his mom, Freda Thornton, after he removed one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

“Removing the monument doesn’t erase the past, but removing that monument removes the symbol of oppression, the symbol that we are offended by seeing,” Carter continued.

The statue was cut in half and then taken away on two flatbed trucks to a secure state-owned faculty, where it will stay until a decision on its destination is made.

Confederate Monument Richmnond
Crews gently lower the torso of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Gary Flowers is a fifth-generation Richmond resident and local historian, specializing in African American history. He watched the statue drift to the ground via crane and felt a sense of “jubilee” when considering his family history.

“It was a sense of jubilee. . . That’s the feeling I got from the spirits of my ancestors, who were victims of the enslavement system these statues symbolized,” Flowers said. “The iconography of the Confederacy across the country are false idols.”

While the monument is made of bronze and granite, both Flowers and Carter said removing them physically does not remove the systemic, societal scars the history they represent leaves behind, which have real-world implications for thousands of Virginians to this day.

“They are far more than symbols. Heather Heyer is in a grave today because a white man from Ohio drove nearly 1,000 miles to defend the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville,” Flowers said. “It’s a symbolic [alleviation] of generational pain, but it should be a light of a path going forward. . . It is our individual choice and institutional charge to now eradicate institutional racism in this country.”

“It shows the younger generation that no longer can we maintain the status quo of ‘this is how things have always been; this is how things will always be,’” Carter said. “We know that removing these monuments does not remove the system, but we understand that it removes the symbol of the system. It removes things that are on pedestals; you put things on pedestals you’re proud of. I hope that in 2021, that not just Virginia but America as a whole can say we’re no longer proud of the Confederate history we have.”

The president of the group United Daughters of the Confederacy released a statement Tuesday, after the statue’s removal, saying they are “saddened” some people find the monuments divisive.

“To some, these memorial statues and markers are viewed as divisive and thus unworthy of being allowed to remain in public places. To others, they simply represent a memorial to our forefathers who fought bravely during four years of war."

The group said they denounce racial division and white supremacy.

For lifelong Richmonder Thomas Hayes, the statue's removal was a “big day.” He shared a practical but profound thought as he looked on.

“Means I won’t have to see it anymore!” Hayes said with a chuckle. “I’m glad it’s coming down because Richmond needs it. And this country.”