Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Statue Is Headed to a Black History Museum

Officials have tentatively agreed to transfer ownership of removed Confederate monuments to a pair of museums in the Virginia city

A crane removes the Lee statue from its pedestal
Richmond took down its statue of Robert E. Lee in September 2021. Photo by Steve Helber - Pool / Getty Images

Months after its removal from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, an enormous equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee has found a likely new home. As the Associated Press (AP) reports, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMVA) has reached a tentative agreement with state and city officials to acquire the Lee statue and other Confederate monuments taken down across the Virginia capital.

The deal, announced by Governor Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney last Thursday, is pending approval from the city council, which is set to discuss the measure later this month. Under the agreement, BHMVA will work with the local community and the Valentine museum, which is dedicated to the history of Richmond, to determine the statues’ fate.

“Entrusting the future of these monuments and pedestals to two of our most respected institutions is the right thing to do,” says Stoney in a statement quoted by the Washington Post’s Gregory S. Schneider.

In the summer of 2020, amid widespread protests against racial injustice, Richmond removed four Confederate statues that had previously lined Monument Avenue. The act was part of a wave of statue removals around the country, with at least 168 symbols of the Confederacy taken down that year. But a lawsuit filed by a group of Richmond residents kept the Lee statue standing until September 2021, when Virginia’s Supreme Court dismissed the case and paved the way for the monument’s removal.

Some Virginia communities have struggled with how to handle these controversial statues following their removal. Per the Post, activists in Albemarle County criticized officials for agreeing to send a likeness of a Confederate soldier to a Shenandoah Valley battlefield for continued display. Meanwhile, some preservationists disapproved of Charlottesville’s choice to donate its Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which plans to melt down the work and transform its remnants into a new piece of art. Opponents of that action filed a suit against Charlottesville last month.

large brick building housing the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia will work with another museum and state officials to determine the fate of the monuments. Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia

The new deal in Richmond does not limit what the museums can do with the monuments. BHMVA interim executive director Marland Buckner says in the same statement that the museum “takes very seriously the responsibility to manage these objects in ways that ensure their origins and purpose are never forgotten: that is the glorification of those who led the fight to enslave African Americans and destroy the Union.”

Greg Werkheiser, founder of Cultural Heritage Partners, a law firm representing the two museums in the transfer, tells BBC News that the monuments support a “false historical narrative” but remain important as an “educational tool.”

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865. Virginia, for its part, was once home to the most Confederate monuments in the country, reports Deepa Shivaram for NPR.

The Lee monument was erected in 1890, a time when Confederate symbols provided a rallying point for advocates of racial segregation and oppressive Jim Crow laws. The 1890s represented the height of white supremacist terrorism in the United States, with more than 1,000 Black Americans lynched during that decade, according to data compiled by the University of Missouri.

Per the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), the statue’s unveiling of drew as many as 150,000 people—the largest public gathering in Richmond since the inauguration of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis in 1861. The state agency adds that “the monument provided a physical icon for the cult of the ‘Lost Cause,’” a revisionist, ahistorical ideology that suggests the Civil War was fought to protect states’ rights rather than to ensure the continuation of slavery.  

“Symbols matter, and for too long, Virginia’s most prominent symbols celebrated our country’s tragic division and the side that fought to keep alive the institution of slavery by any means possible,” says Northam in a statement provided to NPR. “Now it will be up to our thoughtful museums, informed by the people of Virginia, to determine the future of these artifacts.”

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