The only thing I could think to do, with the protesters on the steps of City Hall, was to march with them, if they’d have me. So that’s what we did. A diverse mix of citizens made our way from Capitol Square to the Lee Monument in a spirit of unity, peace and shared grief. I had run around the circle many times during the city’s annual Monument Avenue 10K, but as a Black man I never had a desire or reason to set foot inside it.
Upon reaching the pedestal of the 60-foot-tall bronze and granite centerpiece to the Lost Cause, now adorned with graffiti and draped with demonstrators, I realized just how imposing and intimidating it must have been to previous generations of people who looked like me. Like the rest of the Confederate icons that defined Monument Avenue, it cast a long, dark shadow over our city. First erected in 1890, as part of a real estate development on the outskirts of downtown, the actual purpose was pure Jim Crow — to put Black people in their place. And that place never included the chair behind the desk in the mayor’s office.
Democrats had worked for several years to see a law passed in the Virginia General Assembly that finally granted localities the authority to determine the fate of Confederate statuary, which state code had protected under the definition of “war memorials.” The new law was due to take effect July 1, 2020. But as the protests continued throughout June, the monuments remained flash points for violent demonstration and a public safety risk. Protesters had already toppled several of them, including a life-size figure of Jefferson Davis. In Portsmouth, a demonstrator was seriously injured when a dismantled monument crashed onto his head. After all the pain these symbols had inflicted on our people, I did not want to risk a life being lost. They needed to come down.
My office had been warned by the city attorney not to take any action until the Richmond City Council had proceeded in accordance with the ordinance, which prescribed a 30-day process. I was also advised by my own legal team that I was risking legal action personally.
But on July 1, I acted. On live television, we watched a 100-ton crane lift Stonewall Jackson from his pedestal. Cheers erupted from hundreds who had gathered in the rain to witness its removal. Like other residents in our city that day, I cried. Over the next week, contractors removed 14 pieces of Confederate iconography throughout the city.
In the three weeks that followed, protests were largely peaceful and the city experienced no significant incidents of violence. My office received hundreds of calls; many praising the decision, but also scores objecting to what we had done and a number leveling personal threats, some profane, or hurling racist slurs. These threats had been preceded by a group of around 200 protesters, some of them armed, who had shown up outside my apartment one night, defacing the building and demanding I come outside to address a list of demands that included defunding the police.
Today, only the Lee Monument, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and whose removal order by Gov. Ralph Northam is being challenged in court, remains on Monument Avenue. The bronze figures of Jackson, Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, and Matthew Fontaine Maury are gone; only their pedestals remain. Also remaining on the avenue is the monument to the Richmond native and tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Erected after much controversy in 1996, his statue represents the only true champion on that block.