City Council authorizes mayor to accept Lee monument and land from state

Free Press staff, wire reports | 1/13/2022, 6 p.m.
The traffic circle at Monument and Allen avenues where the giant monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once stood ...
A fence remains around the circle on Monument Avenue where the six-story monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once stood. The statue was removed in September, and the pedestal was cleared away late last month. This week, City Council authorized Mayor Levar M. Stoney to accept the statue, pedestal and the land from the state. They are to be turned over to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward, along with other city-owned Confederate monuments. Photo by Sandra Sellars

The traffic circle at Monument and Allen avenues where the giant monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once stood will soon belong to the City of Richmond.

City Council unanimously cleared the way Monday by authorizing Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s administration to accept from the state a gift of the now empty circle, which is 200 feet in diameter.

City Council also held a special session Wednesday to approve the state’s transfer of the statue and the pedestal upon which it sat to the city. Under the just-introduced ordinance, the Lee items, as well as other city-owned Confederate statues, would be transferred to the Richmond-based Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Jackson Ward, as previously announced by Mayor Stoney and Gov. Ralph S. Northam.

The 9-0 council vote came on a night when the city’s governing body also backed the mayor’s proposal to pump an additional $1.3 million into the creation of a memorial campus to the enslaved in Shockoe Bottom.

The approved funding includes $300,000 to support the creation of a National Slavery Museum Foundation, which envisions raising and spending up to $220 million to create The Museum of the American Slave Trade on the site of a once infamous slave trading post, Lumpkin’s Jail, which became the birthplace of Virginia Union University following the Civil War.

The funding also includes $1 million to pay for the museum and the campus. The new design funds, according to the city, will be added to $1.7 million in unused money City Council allocated in 2020 to pay for design of the 9-acre heritage campus that includes the museum site.

Outgoing Gov. Ralph S. Northam an- nounced Dec. 5 his decision to transfer the traffic circle to the city once the Lee pedestal was removed, and the council has rushed to ensure the transfer is completed before the governor leaves office on Satur- day, Jan. 15.

State fencing around the circle is still in place. The council was told that the fencing will remain in place until the area can be replanted with grass.

Lincoln Saunders, Richmond’s chief administrative officer, told the council that city planners would be tasked with leading a community-driven process to come up with recommendations for the future of the circle as well as sites on Monument Avenue where other Confederate statues stood.

It is unclear whether the city process would include cooperation with the Virginia Museum of Fine of Fine Arts, which Gov. Northam provided $1 million to lead a process to envision what should replace the Confederate landmarks.

Ninth District Councilman Michael J. Jones expressed concern about future expenditures involved in creating and carrying out any plan for “reimagining” Monument Avenue. He said he would not want to see that “reimagining” take priority over the city’s neighborhoods where poverty and joblessness are rampant and which need substantial investment.

He was happy, though, the city would own and control the traffic circle.

“I’m glad we are getting it now before we change gubernatorial leadership because, I’m sorry, that dude (incoming Republican Gov. Glenn A. Youngkin) and a lot of those GOP folk are straight up on another level of white supremacy,” Dr. Jones said. “Not necessarily just because they embrace it, but just because that is the talking points that get them elected. And that’s even scarier.”

Before the vote, council members heard from a handful of speakers who supported the city taking control of the site. Speakers urged quick removal of the fencing so the circle could be used as a public park, just as it became most notably in late spring 2020 during the racial justice protests that broke out following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“There is no need necessarily for additional funding to go towards putting all that back together. The community did it in 2020, and we’ll do it again,” said Joseph Rogers, a local educator and activist, who also urged that the council rename the circle for Marcus-David Peters, as was done informally during the protests.

Mr. Peters, a 24-year-old high school biology teacher, was fatally shot May 2018 by a Richmond Police officer while he suffered what has been described as a mental health crisis.

In comments on the proposed $1.3 million investment in the museum, Dr. Jones called it an appropriate way for the city to proceed in creating a better future.

“The response can’t be to build back up Monument Avenue,” Dr. Jones said. “It must be to build back the antithesis of what was torn down. And the best thing to do is to become serious as a council and administration to tell the true story, the true tale, of what took place in Virginia.” However, Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards, who have led an 18-year campaign to reclaim Shockoe Bottom’s history of slavery, are concerned they and other advocates are being shut out.

Once one of the nation’s largest slave markets, Shockoe Bottom ranks among the most important places “to understanding the history of today’s Black community and, indeed, the United States as a whole,” they wrote in a letter to City Council on behalf of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.

“That is why we are deeply concerned that the city’s attention could turn away from the Heritage Campus” to focus on creating a foundation about which the public knows little and its plan to create a costly museum that may never come to fruition, they wrote.

The council also passed legislation to incorporate on the city’s list of removed statues ones of Confederate Gen. Williams C. Wickham and of the First Virginia Regiment, a Confederate unit, which were removed by protesters in June 2020.

The vote to add those statues took place amid preparations for the removal of pedestals where the other city-owned Confederate statues once stood. The city awarded a $1.5 million contract Jan. 5 to Team Henry Enterprises. Procurement documents indicate that the removal is to include the statue of Gen. A.P. Hill and his remains, which are buried underneath it, at Hermitage Road and Laburnum Avenue.