Writing the Final Chapter of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Monument

The latest news out of Virginia suggests that it is just a matter of time before the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond is removed. Lee will follow the same fate as Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, who once looked down on the people of Richmond from atop their pedestals along Monument Avenue.

Looking back on the events of the last eight months I for one am glad that it has taken this long to bring about Lee’s final removal. The delay has given Richmonders the opportunity to rewrite the history of the Lee monument and Monument Avenue. When its history is written it is this final chapter that will overshadow the rest of the story. The significance of this cannot be overestimated.

Photograph of Nimrod Burke posted on twitter by Alex Criqui (February 19, 2021)

This reinterpretation of the monument has taken many forms, including the tagging of the monument itself, speeches, voting drives, memorials, music, dance, and the addition of temporary wayside markers. All of this has succeeded in smoothing the rough edges of this “blunt object.” The site has become a gathering place for all Richmonders as opposed to its original purpose of reinforcing segregation through a celebration of the Lost Cause.

People who were never intended to gather and celebrate at the base of the Lee monument by monument boosters, real estate developers, and the people who eventually made the West End neighborhood their home have done so by taking ownership of the space and imposing their own shared history on the monument itself.

The most powerful way in which this has been accomplished is through the images projected onto the monument at night. This began over the summer with projections of George Floyd, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Lewis. Of all the forms of reinterpretation witnessed the turning of Lee’s massive pedestal into a screen on which to project images of African Americans has proven to be the most powerful.

The most recent image is that of a soldier who served in the United States Colored Troops. I suspect that the choice of soldier was not by accident.

This picture is of Sergeant Nimrod Burke. Originally from Prince William County, Virginia, his family had been freed and moved to Ohio. In 1861, Burke was a teamster and scout for the 36th Ohio infantry. In 1864, he joined the 23rd USCT and was promoted to sergeant. This picture is widely circulated—in some cases, as an unidentified soldier. His family now has a website devoted to him.

Burke is just one of many of the soldiers in the 23rd who were from Virginia. We have traced men back to the city of Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, Culpeper, Fauquier, Orange, Prince William, Rappahannock, Spotsylvania, and Stafford. Many of these men escaped from slavery during the Union occupation of Fredericksburg from April to early September 1862, when over 12,000 slaves escaped their ‘masters.’ These men escaped only to come back and fight with the United States Colored Troops – many of them with the 23rd USCT.

The choice of Burke is a reminder of the role that thousands of Black Virginians played in helping to preserve the Union, end slavery, and destroy the Confederacy. But the juxtaposition of the image and the Lee monument is also a reminder that the Confederate monument landscape all but obliterated the history of Black Virginians during the Civil War, reducing them to “loyal slaves.”

It is the delay in removal that has afforded this opportunity to rewrite the history of the Lee monument and Civil War memory in Virginia, but more importantly, the efforts of activists and artists, and the participation of the broader community has placed the city of Richmond in a unique position where it can now engage in the hard work of transforming this space into something that reflects the shared values and history of everyone.

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10 comments… add one
  • Msb Feb 21, 2021 @ 12:50

    Can you say whether there will be a photo collection of all the projections on the statue base? Or that lovely photo of the young ballet dancers that you’ve used a couple of times? Those are records of the past that I’d like to keep.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 21, 2021 @ 12:54

      I believe the state has collected all of the objects placed around the base of the monument. I don’t know at this point what, if anything, is being planned for their preservation and possible display.

  • James R. Johnson Feb 20, 2021 @ 11:27

    The tearing down of Confederate monuments does not erase the past. Their removal contributes nothing toward the future shape of the nation! What it does, is further divide a nation already fractured; some pundits say beyond repair. On a trip to Germany and Austria, I was pleased to learn the Germans are no longer tearing down monuments to Nazism, but maintaining them! Our guide told us the German people have come to realize “that is who we were”, and we can’t change it! Berlin and Nuremberg have Holocaust Museums. Dachau and Auschwitz are left and maintained as reminders to future generations not to make the same horrific mistakes. Hitler’s Congress Hall still stands as does Nuremberg’s rally center, which is being somewhat restored.The freeing of slaves, in this country, actually did them more harm than good. Hundreds of thousands of them died from starvation and disease. Many of them wound up going back to work on the same plantations, as before the conflict. The Union soldiers treated the freed slaves horribly. W. T. Sherman turned his back on the freed slaves on his march to Savannah. Lincoln wanted to send the slaves to Liberia,” or to a climate best suited to their nature”. Free! Hardly! Thy were treated worse, in some cases by their liberators, than their original masters. But what a pool of labor for the now burgeoning industries of the North! Go ahead and tear down the Confederate monuments. It won’t change a thing because that is “who we were”, and we can’t change it!

    • Msb Feb 21, 2021 @ 12:48

      “ The freeing of slaves, in this country, actually did them more harm than good.“
      That was Jefferson Davis’ view. Not the freedpeople’s. Strangely enough, Americans of all colors still seek the right to run their own lives, and not be robbed of their labor and its profits, the control of their own bodies, their family members and even their lives.

  • zcrockett53 Feb 20, 2021 @ 5:09

    Is there a book[s] that traces the history of the USCT and all the battles they engaged in? I’ve read your book abut the Crater, of course, “Remembering the Battle of the Crater,” such a heartbreaking story. Growing up in Culpeper, VA, all I knew about that battle was that it failed in its purpose; I never knew that USCT troops were involved at all. I wonder if the NPS has enhanced their interpretation to include their story.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2021 @ 5:24

      I would start with Noah Andre Trudeau’s book, Like Men of War.

  • Mike D. Feb 20, 2021 @ 5:06

    Very good point on the time factor and review. I agree this leads to a full understanding of what and why. It is so difficult for people in general to understand based on the education we all received that benefits the lost cause instead of the truth.
    Thanks for your updates and insight.

  • C L Milner Feb 20, 2021 @ 4:18

    Really appreciate this post. Wondered if this monument would or should live on bc it has been transformed. And if that transformation was enough?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 20, 2021 @ 4:28

      I suspect that most people involved in the work to reinterpret this site would argue that the monument’s transformation includes removal. Thanks for the comment.

    • hankc9174 Feb 23, 2021 @ 6:07

      graffiti-covered parts of the berlin wall have been appropriated for interpretation and display in various museums and parks .

      the same could be done for parts of the lee monument . perhaps at the pettis bridge or the memorial for peace and justice, for starters

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