*RICHMOND, Va. — As fencing is installed around the 130-year-old Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Va., in preparation for its removal, the monument itself has become an unlikely symbol of hope and persistence for many in the surrounding communities.
Gov. Ralph S. Northam ordered the removal of the Confederate general’s memorial in June 2020, but it has been delayed by legal action from local residents who want it to remain.
The 60-foot, 12-ton statue on Monument Avenue is covered in graffiti, applied and reapplied multiple times since June’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Queen, 32, a well-known Richmond activist, has been here since the beginning of the takeover. She has a bright smile and is wearing earmuffs. Her frame is small but her voice is loud and confident.
“We created this space for everybody. We want everyone to feel safe in this space. Even if you have some differences, we want to be able to all come together and be able to stand together and be able to enjoy each other because there’s so much hate everywhere else. Even with the [BLM] movement, it’s not to create problems with anyone else, it’s to say equally we are here,” she says.
“That’s why everyone is mingling, we don’t play that. We don’t ask the question ‘who are you with’ unless you’re being really weird,” she says. “As long as you’re here in peace and don’t cause any problems with anybody we don’t care who you’re with or what group you’re technically in.”
All along Monument Avenue, statues were toppled or officially removed during the nationwide wave of protests. Monuments to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, and Christopher Columbus were brought down by protesters. Later, the statue of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general, was removed by order of Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney.
Many Virginia residents don’t want to see Confederate monuments removed, and believe the Lee statue is an important piece of history. After Gov. Northam ordered the removal of the statue in June, a group of nearby residents filed a lawsuit arguing the removal would lower property values in the area.
Judge W. Reilly Marchant ruled in Oct. 2020 that the statue can be removed by order of the governor, but the ruling was stayed pending appeal.
Robert E. Lee served as military advisor to Davis at the start of the Civil War, before taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862. He famously succeeded in driving the Union army away from Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, during the Seven Days Battles that year. During his 1863 invasion of the North, Lee’s army lost the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1865, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become president of the United States, took Richmond and defeated Lee’s army.
When it was erected in 1890, the statue of Robert E. Lee was next to a tobacco field, and later became the center of an all-white, affluent neighborhood. Today, the base of the monument is surrounded by memorials for African American victims of police brutality.
For protesters, the monument, once a symbol of the Confederate States’ fight to uphold slavery in the South, is now a beacon of hope and inspiration.
The area around the monument is full of people of all ages and all different ethnicities. There are tents with burgers on the grill, a community garden, lawn chairs and a basketball hoop set up to the side. The food is free and funded by community donations.
A man stands alone on the base of the monument and plays a trombone solo, the music ringing through the air as people stand silently and watch. After the solo ends, they clap and cheer. They are laughing and mingling. The crowd piles on top of the base of the monument, dancing and crowding around one another as a boombox plays “Juicy” by Notorious BIG.
Queen says these joyful times used to be more frequent. “This used to be way better before the police started coming and tearing everything down. We fed the community for days, for months, for free. We used to have tents, we used to have stuff out here feeding the homeless but then the police started coming down and tearing down the tents [in August]. We used to be here every single day. I think they just got tired of seeing it, they got tired of the marches even though they were peaceful, they got tired because it made them work.”
On this day, Richmond police are not interfering, but closing roads leading up to the statue and standing watch nearby, off the monument grounds.
“Down in the Capitol is a 2A [Second Amendment] rally today, I was there as well, as you can see I carry [a gun]. I went up there with my AR on my chest the same as everyone else did. I think that because a lot is going on that they [the police] aren’t really foolin’ with us,” Queen says, in reference to the festivities being allowed to continue, unlike on other days.
(Edited by Claire Swift and Kristen Butler)
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