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The Last Confederate 

With the removal of A.P. Hill, the last major Richmond-owned Confederate monument, what does the future hold for these symbols of the Lost Cause?

click to enlarge After 130 years, the statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was removed on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, before a small crowd of onlookers.

Scott Elmquist

After 130 years, the statue of Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was removed on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022, before a small crowd of onlookers.

It’s a scene that’s become a familiar one in recent years. Traffic cones. Construction workers. The bronze figure of a Confederate general held aloft by a crane.

On Monday, work began to remove Richmond’s monument to Confederate Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill Jr., the last major city-owned monument to the Confederacy. Located at the intersection of Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road in the city’s North Side, the monument was placed here by real estate developer, cigarette magnate and Confederate veteran Lewis Ginter to promote his new suburban neighborhood in the early 1890s.

The removal of the Hill Monument is seen by many as a bookend to a journey that began in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter protesters in Richmond took to the streets, demanding law enforcement reforms and the removal of the city’s Confederate iconography. After protesters began pulling down the monuments themselves, the city caved to public pressure, starting with the Stonewall Jackson Monument that was located at Monument Avenue and North Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

The removal of the Hill Monument took longer than the others because Hill’s remains were buried inside, and Hill’s family sued to have the monument turned over to them. The family lost a legal decision last week, allowing the removal to take place.

“This is something that commenced two years ago,” said Mayor Levar Stoney in remarks to reporters. “We sought out to turn the page on our Confederate history and start writing a new chapter for the city of Richmond, and today marks the last day of the Lost Cause.”

Now, as with the other Confederate monuments once owned by the city, the A.P. Hill Monument will be given to Richmond’s Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia; Hill’s remains will be given to his family for burial at a family plot in Culpeper.

click to enlarge A. P. Hill distant relation John Hill from Ohio greets supporters at the statue removal on December 12, 2022. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A. P. Hill distant relation John Hill from Ohio greets supporters at the statue removal on December 12, 2022.

Not everyone is happy with this plan. Hill’s family has filed an appeal.

“We’re just going to keep fighting until we get it. We don’t want to see it destroyed,” says 33-year-old John Hill, a distant relation to the Confederate he shares a last name with, standing next to the monument on Monday. “We feel differently about [the monument] because it’s actually a headstone. It’s the grave marker, so we feel it belongs to us.”

Whatever the ultimate outcome, it does raise a question: What does the future hold for Richmond’s Confederate monuments?

The city’s monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis is currently on display at the Valentine museum as it appeared after it was pulled off its pedestal by protesters in 2020: dented, graffiti covered and with a large gash in his arm. Most, if not all, of the city’s other monuments are being stored at the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant in Manchester.

Though its being contested in court, the current plan is that Charlottesville’s monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee – the removal of which sparked the white supremacist 2017 Unite the Right rally – will be melted down and turned into public art.

Could this happen to Richmond’s Confederate monuments? Will they be put on display in a public park with signage to contextualize them and serve as a teachable moment? And what’s this about an upcoming art exhibit in Los Angeles?

Hill may have been felled by a Union bullet in 1865, but his monument could have an interesting afterlife.

After spending the past couple of years under tarps at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, some of Richmond’s Confederate monuments will be put back on public display next year.

Next fall, the statues for Jefferson Davis, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Williams Carter Wickham and Joseph Bryan will be part of a new art exhibition called “Monuments” in Los Angeles. Taking place at the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and visual art space LAXART, the exhibit “will feature decommissioned Confederate monuments displayed alongside existing and newly commissioned works of contemporary art,” according to its website.

“Monuments” will be curated by LAXART director Hamza Walker, artist Kara Walker and MOCA’s senior curator, Bennett Simpson; a spokesperson for LAXART declined an interview request, saying it was too early to discuss plans for the exhibition.

“It’s my understanding that there are several African American artists that are going to present works of art in counterpoint to the supposition of those statues,” says Dr. Monroe Harris, president of the board and interim director of Richmond’s Black History Museum.

Will the monuments be melted down to create new works of art? At least for the moment, the answer is no.

click to enlarge Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, says the Jefferson Davis monument will stay on display at the museum until this summer, when it heads to Los Angeles for a major exhibit at  LAXART and The Geffen Contemporary at  the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA). - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, says the Jefferson Davis monument will stay on display at the museum until this summer, when it heads to Los Angeles for a major exhibit at LAXART and The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA).

“Part of the deal is that they will be unaltered, so there will be no opportunity for artists to do any direct changes to a monument, to a statue,” says Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, who adds that some Confederate monuments from other localities will be altered. “The museum has purchased some statues, not from Richmond, that artists will be able to respond to in a variety of ways.”

For the Valentine’s part, the Davis sculpture that once held a place of prominence at Monument and Davis avenues will stay on display at the museum until this summer when it heads out west to be part of the new exhibition.

That’s not to say that Richmond’s monuments will always remain intact. Asked if the statues could ultimately be melted down for other purposes, Harris says it’s a possibility.

“Right now, all options are open. That is one of the conversations: that the artifacts will be transformed into new works of art,” Harris says. “Of course, others have said that they would like for them to go to certain sites here in Virginia, maybe in private collections, things of that nature. The most drastic one is you just melt them down and get rid of them.”

Given the museum’s location across the street from Abner Clay Park in Jackson Ward, some have floated the idea of displaying the monuments there with signage to contextualize them. Harris doesn’t think moving Confederate statuary from Monument Avenue to the city’s most well-known historically Black neighborhood is a great idea.

“The current line is that we’re still looking at it, so all options are open, but if you want my personal opinion, no, I don’t think that would be the best way to do it,” Harris says. “That would be worse, and I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen.”

click to enlarge Dr. Monroe Harris, president of the board and interim director of Richmond’s Black History Museum, shown here in New York during the unveiling of the Kehinde Wiley monument, "Rumors of War." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Dr. Monroe Harris, president of the board and interim director of Richmond’s Black History Museum, shown here in New York during the unveiling of the Kehinde Wiley monument, "Rumors of War."

Whatever is decided, Harris says the museum doesn’t want to own the monuments in perpetuity, and that the Los Angeles exhibition gives the museum some time to decide what will be their ultimate fate. As he notes, some exhibitions can go on for years, especially if they go on tour.

“The next year gives us an opportunity to listen to the community, to digest information and come up with what hopefully will be a fair and equitable decision,” Harris says.

Both the Black History Museum and the Valentine currently have surveys online where citizens can give input on the future of the monuments. Harris says public listening sessions may also take place.

“At the end, it’s all about understanding. If we all understand each other, then society is better for that,” Harris says. “I may not agree with you on every issue, but at least we can appreciate and respect each other so we can move forward.”

There’s also the question of what’s to become of Monument Avenue.

As the boulevard that once held most of the city’s largest Confederate monuments, the street was a focal point of 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests. At this point, humanitarian and tennis great Arthur Ashe is the lone monument left on Monument Avenue.

Of particular interest is Lee Circle, which previously was home to the nation’s largest Confederate statue. Black Lives Matter proponents remade the public space, covering the pedestal in graffiti and transforming it into a place of remembrance for those who had lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. Citizens unofficially renamed the space Marcus-David Peters Circle after a Black man who was shot and killed by Richmond police while experiencing a mental health episode.

National Geographic ran a photo of George Floyd’s image projected onto the monument for the cover of its January 2021 issue. The New York Times Style Magazine hailed it as the greatest piece of American protest art since World War II.

On Jan. 25, 2021, before the monument came down, the state installed fencing around the circle to block public access. Though the monument was removed that September, the fencing remains.

click to enlarge Michael Paul Williams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, believes the fencing around Lee Circle should come down now or else it will continue the area's former "spirit of exclusion." - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Michael Paul Williams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, believes the fencing around Lee Circle should come down now or else it will continue the area's former "spirit of exclusion."

“Take the damn wall down. Take the fence down. Take the banners down. It’s absurd. Take it down. Why is it still up?” says Michael Paul Williams, a longtime Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist who won a Pulitzer for his commentary about Confederate monuments and the Black Lives Matter movement.

If the rationale is to discourage people from gathering at the site, Williams says “if you’re keeping that fence up in the spirit of exclusion, that’s in the spirit of the monument that was there.”

In October, Richmond’s Planning Commission approved a plan to reopen the circle after filling it with trees and plants in an attempt to discourage public gathering there, despite concerns about a lack of community engagement in the decision.

“If you’re trying to create something that’s aesthetically pleasing in the temporary period before we decide what’s next, that’s one thing,” Williams says. “If you’re putting vegetation there to keep people out, that’s wrong.”

In October, Lincoln Saunders, the city’s chief administrative officer, said that the engagement process to permanently reimagine Monument Avenue could take years.

As for his take on the future of the corridor, Harris says it represents an opportunity.

“I would love to see something artistic replace what was once there. I think that Monument Avenue has traditionally been a preeminent street in Richmond, although for the wrong reasons,” he says. “Why can’t we turn that into a positive and use this time to make it into a boulevard that is inclusive of everybody, that everybody can feel good about?”

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