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With the Lee monument dismantled, it’s time to build a better Richmond
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MICHAEL PAUL WILLIAMS

With the Lee monument dismantled, it’s time to build a better Richmond

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Michael Paul Williams columnist

Michael Paul Williams

What was most surprising was how meekly Robert E. Lee surrendered.

Stonewall Jackson dug in deep before relinquishing his pedestal after a daylong siege. On Wednesday, Lee bent to the will of construction workers in less than two hours — his statue harnessed and hoisted from its perch as the sun burst through an overcast sky.

The Confederate general will no longer cast his long shadow on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. But the ideology that erected his statue looms large in Richmond and beyond. You can see it in the attempts to keep Black people from voting in places like Georgia and Texas, and in the white supremacist impulses driving the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Even as workers cut Lee down to size, Richmond residents faced eviction proceedings in a downtown courthouse. Some of the protesters who fought to bring those monuments down remain traumatized by their encounters with law enforcement. And George Wythe High students returned Wednesday to a ramshackle school as the mayor and Richmond School Board fight over who should build a new one.

Our monumental moment of triumph began tentatively with a mayoral commission that initially was forbidden from considering removal until the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville by a neo-Nazi forced Mayor Levar Stoney’s hand. But as gentrification transforms Richmond into a whiter and wealthier city, less affluent residents are displaced and people like those in the Wythe school community are placed on the back burner.

“Why can’t we even get people to come together and get a new George Wythe built now, that students needed yesterday?” asked former Richmond School Board member Donald Coleman.

Chalk it up to the unfinished business that permeated Wednesday’s proceedings.

“It’s an incredible moment,” said Richmond City Councilman Andreas Addison. “But I think it’s more of a symbol of the work to do now. It’s the hard steps now that are going to be taken to remove the systemic racism that these have embodied for so long. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

That last sentence was the punctuation mark on a morning of celebration to a backbeat of hip-hop music from onlookers outside The 1805 apartment building.

“Robert E. Lee! You was late on your rent! You’re evicted!” one person shouted.

Soon, a statue that had been a towering fixture was humbly reduced by an unwillingness to abide Lost Cause idolatry any longer.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Lawrence West, founder of Black Lives Matter RVA and a regular around the circle, which was reclaimed and informally renamed for Marcus-David Peters, a Black high school teacher who was shot and killed by a Richmond police officer during a mental health crisis in May 2018.

“Imagine how our ancestors are feeling up in the sky right now. We stand on tall men’s shoulders, tall women’s shoulders. So just gratitude, joy and appreciation, you know, that we were able to make it to the end.”

But lingering tensions remained at the security-heavy event between community organizers, police and elected officials, whose presence center stage Wednesday had the activists bristling. Last year, the protesters had a series of demands beyond the removal of monuments to white supremacy.

They included reopening the Peters case; defunding the police; dropping all charges against protesters; establishing an independent civilian review board with subpoena power; and releasing the names of Richmond police officers under investigation for use of force.

Those demands, from the perspective of the demonstrators, have been largely unmet.

Nothing suggested the moment more aptly than JaPharii Jones, waving a Black Lives Matter flag, being stopped by police before he could complete a victory lap around the circle formerly known as Lee.

A big lie requires a big statue, and Lee’s — 21 feet tall atop a 40-foot pedestal — was a whopper. But in the aftermath of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer, Richmond protesters began removing offensive monuments by any means necessary, with elected officials eventually following suit.

Christopher Columbus got the heave into Fountain Lake. Demonstrators took matters into their own hands in their takedown of Jefferson Davis. Eventually, the Stoney administration, citing public safety, hired Black contractor Devon Henry to extract Stonewall Jackson from his base when other contractors were unwilling — either because of ideology or fear of worker safety — to do the job. Through all this, the state-owned Lee monument remained, amid litigation, but had been transformed by graffiti into a social justice statement.

Somewhere, John Mitchell Jr. is smiling.

As editor of the Richmond Planet, he fought against the 1890 monument honoring Lee and foretold of the Black man: “He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.”

The statue was symbolic. But the effect on future generations will be tangible.

As a student at Arthur Ashe Elementary School in Henrico County, Da’Quan Marcell Love recalls taking a field trip to Monument Avenue.

He recalls sitting in the school bus, “seeing these humongous monuments ... and knowing that those people did not necessarily comport with even my existence or my educational goals in life,” said Love, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, which was among several groups to file a legal brief in support of the Lee monument removal.

With the Confederate monuments down, Love said, “no more students, no more kids, have to go on a field trip like that and feel oppressed.”

As difficult as the quest to dismantle these monuments has been, that’s the easy part. Elevating Richmond from its legacy of enslavement, Confederate glorification and systemic racism will be a much heavier lift than the 12-ton Lee statue.

We must curb gun violence, educate our children, erect new schools and provide decent, affordable housing. We must build an inclusive community from Richmond Highway to Monument Avenue.

If we define ourselves only by what we take down, the result will be as empty as those pedestals.

Michael Paul Williams is the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. You can reach him at mwilliams@timesdispatch.com or 804-649-6815 and follow on Twitter:

@RTDMPW

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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