Unsettling the Legacy of Monument Avenue’s Robert E. Lee Statue   

Joseph Bonjawo
Opinion Writer, Joseph Bonjawo
Monument Avenue: Rober E. Lee

Figure 1. (The Chicago Reader. Monument Avenue’s Robert E. Lee Statue).

Between 1890 and 1929, the City of Richmond erected five statues on Monument Avenue to commemorate Civil War-era Confederates. These individuals included Robert E. Lee (May 29th, 1890), J.E.B. Stuart (May 30th, 1907), Jefferson Davis (June 3rd, 1907), Stonewall Jackson (October 11th, 1919), and Matthew Fontaine Maury (November 11th, 1929). The statues’ unveiling ceremonies typically consisted of prayers, orations, and parades of Confederate veterans and modern military units. These ceremonies often generated immense public attendance and participation. For instance, the Lee statue’s unveiling ceremony contained nearly 150,000 attendees, exceeding Richmond’s approximate population of 81,388 at the time. The immense scale of these ceremonies enabled the Confederacy’s proponents to “inspire the assemble”[d] “faithful” and “proselytize among new generations and outsiders”.     

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? publication, the United States contains 235 memorials dedicated to Robert E. Lee, the highest of any Confederate. This statistic indicates that Lee remains the most venerated Confederate in contemporary society. However, despite being highly revered by many, his memorials often evoked opposition amongst a vocal minority. For instance, John Mitchell Jr., an African American civil rights activist and editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, objected to the Robert E. Lee statue’s unveiling ceremony on Monument Avenue. Mitchell contended that the City of Richmond must permit those who initially wore “clanging chains” to abstain from voting on behalf of the ceremony. In a Richmond Planet entry published two days after the unveiling, he characterized the Lee monument as a regressive imposition that “forges heavier chains with which to be bound”. In the newspaper’s Voice of the Colored Press column of June 7th, 1890, African American contributors condemned Lee for his treachery to the Union and his complicity in perpetuating slavery.

Figure 2. (Richmond Dispatch entry of March 4th, 1890, located in the fifth column beneath the “Unveiling Appropriation” segment).

Figure 3. (Richmond Planet entry of May 31st, 1890, located in the second column beneath the segment titled “The Lee Monument Unveiling”).

Figure 4. (Richmond Planet’s Voice of the Colored Press entry of June 7th, 1890, located in the fourth column beneath the “Voice of the Colored Press” segment)

The newspaper entries of African American journalists in the 19th century reveal that the Robert E. Lee statue has remained contentious since its conception. Despite this reality, the monument continued to serve as an imposing structure in Virginia for over a century. This essay will employ the following approach to contextualize the statue’s eventual removal from Monument Avenue: 1.) Recount the social and legal events that ultimately resulted in the monument’s relocation and 2.) Examine a formerly enslaved population’s prolonged oppression under Robert E. Lee’s supervision.

In the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Ralph Northam, now-former Democratic Governor of Virginia, campaigned against Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee. On August 16th that year, these individuals asserted their convictions regarding the removal of Confederate monuments, including the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville’s Market Street Park, formerly known as Emancipation ParkNortham endorsed the City of Charlottesville’s decision to dismantle the monument and advocated the relocation of Confederate statues to museums. Furthermore, he pledged to collaborate alongside localities to disassemble these monuments upon assuming office. On the contrary, Gillespie emphasized that Confederate monuments must remain in place while operating under local government jurisdiction. On November 7th, 2017, Northam defeated Gillespie by nearly a 9% margin in the general election. He then commenced his term as Governor of Virginia on January 13th, 2018.

Two years following Northam’s arrival in office, a singular tragedy would precipitate a radical conversion in the cultural atmosphere of the United States. On May 25th, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a Caucasian police officer, suffocated George Floyd, an African American man, as he remained handcuffed in a prone position. Darnella Frazier, an African American bystander, recorded a 10-minute video of the incident and shared her footage on Facebook. This gesture compelled the Pulitzer Board to award her last year’s Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. Upon rapidly circulating on social media, Frazier’s recording engendered nationwide demonstrations. These protests would eventually solidify the City of Richmond’s decision to dismantle the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.  

For nearly 130 years, Monument Avenue served as a historic destination and recreational site. However, by May 30th, 2020, it primarily functioned as an epicenter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations. These protests resulted in the vandalization of Confederate monuments and local businesses in Richmond. Additionally, they demanded frequent law enforcement intervention. For instance, on the night of May 29th, 2020, police officers unleashed tear gas and mace upon clusters of protesters as they traversed from Monroe Park to the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. In a Twitter entry published the following day, Levar Stoney, Mayor of Richmond, reprimanded protesters for devastating the city and simultaneously acknowledged their anguish. 

The prevalence of demonstrations in Richmond eventually prompted state and city officials to disassemble the city’s Confederate monuments. However, the Virginia General Assembly had already initiated such a measure a month prior to Floyd’s demise and the ensuing protests. On April 11th, 2020, Ralph Northam signed two bills authorizing localities to relocate city-owned Confederate monuments beginning July 1st, 2020. These monuments included the statues of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, and J.E.B. Stuart. Additionally, Northam emphasized that the measures would facilitate a more “equitable, just, and inclusive” Virginia. Richmond officials leveraged this legislation immediately upon its activation. On July 1st, 2020, Levar Stoney issued an emergency declaration to seize numerous city-owned Confederate statues. Stoney imposed this protocol to mitigate COVID-19 transmission and avert potential injuries as protesters attempted to dislodge the monuments. Furthermore, he intended to reform the city’s landscape and establish a more “diverse, compassionate, and inclusive community”. Stoney first revealed this legislation to the general public on June 3rd, 2020, four days after the initial protests on Monument Avenue.  

The Robert E. Lee statue, unlike the four city-owned monuments, remained under the state of Virginia’s jurisdiction. Ralph Northam announced the statue’s removal in a press conference scheduled the day after Stoney first introduced his ordinance. However, two pending lawsuits impeded Northam’s decision. William C. Gregory, the first plaintiff, filed a lawsuit asserting that Northam’s measure violates the statue’s 1890 deed, the Virginia General Assembly’s 1889 Joint Resolution, and the Constitution of Virginia. According to the complaint, Gregory is a descendant of two signatories to the statue’s 1890 deed.

Figure 5. (An excerpt of the 1890 deed, located on page 14 of the document).

Figure 6. (The Virginia General Assembly’s 1889 Joint Resolution, located on pages 17-18 of the document).

Five additional plaintiffs, known collectively as Taylor et al., filed a similar lawsuit citing the Robert E. Lee statue’s 1887 deed alongside the 1889 Joint Resolution and the 1890 deed. As the complaint indicates, these plaintiffs owned property in the Monument Avenue Historic District, which contains the Lee statue. As a result, they feared that the monument’s relocation would result in the loss of favorable tax treatment, property value, and a “priceless work of art”.  

Figure 7(An excerpt of the 1887 deed, located on page 26 of the document)

As legal proceedings progressed, circuit court judges imposed successive injunctions forbidding the Robert E. Lee monument’s displacement. For instance, Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant issued a 90-day injunction upon concluding that Taylor et al.’s case warranted litigation. Consequently, the Lee statue remained in place despite the animosity that protesters exuded.  

By June 8th, 2021, the plaintiffs presented their lawsuits to the Virginia Supreme Court. Initially, the injunctions of circuit court judges enabled the plaintiffs to preserve the Robert E. Lee monument. However, on September 2nd, 2021, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the state of Virginia may remove the statue. The court reasoned that the restrictive covenants in the statue’s deeds and the provisions of the 1889 Joint Resolution were contrary to current public policy in Virginia. As a result, the state of Virginia dismantled the monument on September 8th, 2021, fifteen months after Northam’s initial announcement.  

Three months following the Robert E. Lee statue’s removal, the state of Virginia and the City of Richmond redirected the burden of preserving the monument to local museums. According to the Associated Press, state and city officials announced a tentative agreement to transfer ownership of Confederate monuments, including the Lee statue, to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMVA). While the deal is in effect, the BHMVA will collaborate alongside localities and the Valentine museum to determine the statues’ fates. Carroll Anderson Sr., the BHMVA’s founder, sought to erect a historical shrine dedicated to African Americans. Additionally, the BHMVA’s website specifies that the museum endeavors to convey a more comprehensive and inclusive story of the United States. Assuming that the BHMVA intends to uphold this tradition, its docents possess a moral obligation to inform potential visitors of Lee’s unsettling legacy. 

Figure 8. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robert E. Lee).

The Encyclopædia Britannica states that Robert E. Lee possessed 10 to 15 enslaved laborers during his lifetime. However, his most sustained engagement in slavery occurred while administering Virginia’s Arlington, Romancocke, and White House plantations. George Washington Parke Custis, the estate’s former owner, possessed nearly 198 enslaved Africans. Prior to his death in 1857, Custis had designated Lee as the executor of his estate. In his will, Custis stipulated that Lee must emancipate the estate’s enslaved population within five years. However, Lee found himself suspended in a mound of financial debt and unpaid benefactions to his children. To alleviate these financial burdens, he willfully coerced formerly enslaved Africans into labor once again.

On June 24th, 1859, the New York Tribune newspaper released a letter decrying Lee’s encroachment of Custis’ terms. According to the letter, Custis typically enabled the enslaved laborers to nourish and sustain themselves while in servitude. However, Lee deprived the enslaved population of its fundamental means to ensure sustenance. In particular, he relegated the enslaved laborers to half a peck of unsifted meal” a week per individual. Lee then compounded the enslaved population’s deprivation by demanding incessant labor. As the letter conveys, Lee constrained three elderly female enslaved laborers to sew clothing between morning and night while subjecting them to starvation. These women approached nearly a century in age.

Figure 9. (New York Tribune entry, located in the second column beneath the “Some Facts that Should Come to Light” segment)

Due to the specification of liberation in Custis’ will, the estate’s enslaved population remained adamant in its opposition to Lee’s tyranny. Consequently, three additional enslaved Africans, comprising two men and a girl, vanished from the estate. As the three enslaved laborers scurried to the North, an anonymous brute obstructed their escape and confined them to jail. Eventually, Lee ascertained their location and returned them to the estate. He then transported the three enslaved Africans to a barn, undressed them, and subjected them to thirty-nine lashes. Initially, the slave-whipper responsible for their battering refused to assault the enslaved girl. Out of compulsion, Lee single-handedly administered the thirty-nine lashes to the girl.  

Figure 10. (New York Tribune entry, located in the second column beneath the “Some Facts that Should Come to Light” segment)

The Encyclopædia Britannica reveals that Robert E. Lee served as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, between 1865 and 1870. During his tenure, he refined the institution’s physical plant, revised its curriculum, and enlarged its student and faculty population. In the 21st century, this college is known as Washington and Lee University (W&L). According to the institution’s official website, the board of trustees in 1865 lauded Lee for his dedication to principle and duty. As a result, the trustees perceived him as the ideal presidential candidate for the University. The website specifies that Lee articulated his motives for assuming the presidency in two separate letters to his spouse. In the first letter, he stated that he sought to achieve a charitable deed “for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God”. In the second letter, he conveyed a desire to facilitate proper education amongst the youth.

Washington and Lee University portrays Robert E. Lee as an impassioned president of an academic institution. However, Lee’s atrocities at Custis’ estate merely contradict the attributes that the University claims he exemplifies. Supposing that W&L intends to educate its applicants adequately, it must acknowledge Lee’s insubordination towards Custis’ will. Sources such as the W&L website reveal that despite operating an oppressive slave regime, Lee nonetheless serves as a commemorative figure in modern society. 

For nearly 130 years, the City of Richmond has exalted Robert E. Lee for serving as one of the United States’ most reputable generals. However, historical records indicate that he leveraged the insufferable labor of formerly enslaved Africans to satisfy his financial obligations. Monument Avenue’s Robert E. Lee statue has served as Virginia’s grandest memorial to such a legacy. Despite condoning the relentless persecution of enslaved Africans in prior years, the state of Virginia somehow deemed George Floyd’s assassination the necessary impetus for the statue’s removal. Regardless of Lee’s contributions to academia, his statue’s installation and continued preservation merely reaffirmed the state of Virginia’s vested interest in the institution of slavery. Therefore, his statue’s departure constitutes a symbolic and pivotal victory for the numerous demonstrators that protested on Floyd’s behalf. Moreover, it serves as an enormous tribute to the countless enslaved laborers that succumbed to Lee’s depravity. 

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