In 2020, the New York Times named Richmond, Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue’s pedestal in its current state — colorfully graffitied with the names of police brutality victims and symbols of Black empowerment — the most influential American protest art since World War II. But last December, former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam took it down. The statue itself had already been taken down months prior.
Over the past few years, I witnessed the pedestal play a cast of characters: a meeting point for Black Lives Matter protests, a community vegetable garden, a public memorial for victims of police brutality, a tourist destination, and a stage for dance and song performances. In its heyday, it was a civic and community space whose grassy median donned a portable basketball hoop and voter registration tables. The pedestal was an inspiring community space that brought people together in a neighborhood that often felt unwelcoming to Richmond’s Black residents. But its life as a public demonstration of local resilience was cut short with little input from the community.
The Lee monument, along with four other Confederate statues, once sat on Monument Avenue — a street in a wealthy, predominately-white neighborhood in Richmond. Monument Avenue, for as long as it’s been around, has never been a neutral space. The street was the nucleus of a white-centric interpretation of our nation’s history — and erecting new monuments won’t entirely recontextualize its endurable past. But as cities across the nation consider how to replace their offensive monuments, the Robert E. Lee pedestal gives us hope for how monuments can not only reconcile histories, but reclaim physical space through public art and community engagement.
Public art created by the community transformed the Robert E. Lee monument and its surrounding area from a street you drive by, with 100-foot offensive statues in your rear-view mirrors, into a space you stop, commune and reflect. Finding ways to activate our public spaces, particularly ones that haven’t always been welcoming to minority communities, is critical to truly reclaiming land where Confederate monuments once stood.