RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Gov. Ralph Northam (D) unveiled a proposal Friday to invest about $25 million to reimagine four of Virginia’s historical sites, including nearly $11 million to transform Monument Avenue in Richmond, in an effort to help “tell the true story of our past.”
The governor said the funding will be included in his proposed budget, which would allow the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to begin “a community-driven initiative” to redesign the section of Richmond where Confederate monuments stood for generations.
VMFA Director and CEO Alex Nyerges said the museum will assemble a team of experts from around the world to design the project. “We’re going to bring together urban planners, we’re going to bring together historians, historic preservation people and of course, art historians and most of all, artists,” said Nyerges.
The funding for the Monument Avenue project would include $750,000 for planning and a $10 million down payment to start implementing the project, which will begin with the Robert E. Lee Circle.
“If there’s more funding that’s required, then we’ll look at those options, and some of that may be from the state, but some of it might be from the private sector as well, with grants,” said Northam.
Clark Mercer, Chief of Staff to Gov. Northam, told 8News the governor’s office has been in talks with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which launched a Monuments Project in October. Although no funding has been officially granted to Virginia, the foundation has committed $250 million to relocate and contextualize existing monuments, as well as fund new monuments across the United States.
Specific details of the plan, including whether a memorial for Marcus-David Peters is expected to be part of the Monument Avenue project, have not been decided yet. A VMFA spokeswoman told 8News the plan is in its “infancy stage” as officials will seek input from community leaders before making decisions and state lawmakers must still approve the budget proposal.
Northam’s proposal also includes a $9 million investment to develop a Slavery Heritage Site, helping to preserve Devil’s Half-Acre as a historical site, and improving the Slave Trail in Shockoe Bottom.
“These investments will help Virginia tell the true story of our past and continue building an inclusive future,” Northam said in a statement. “At a time when this Commonwealth and country are grappling with how to present a more complete and honest picture of our complex history, we must work to enhance public spaces that have long been neglected and shine light on previously untold stories.”
The governor also proposes allocating $100,000 to fund the Virginia Emancipation and Freedom Monument project on Brown’s Island.
“The Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown’s Island will commemorate the abolition of slavery and recognize numerous African American Virginians who were devoted to advancing freedom and civil rights,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond). “This funding will move this important project another step closer to becoming a reality.”
The fourth part of Northam’s proposal includes $5 million to restore tombstones from a historic African-American cemetery. The headstones from the former Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C. were discovered in King George County on the property of State Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Westmoreland).
Stuart found the headstones being used a riprap along the Potomac River shoreline during a walk with his wife. “I was horrified when I discovered the headstones from Columbian Harmony Cemetery scattered along two miles of shoreline on the Potomac River,” Stuart said Friday.
According to Gov. Northam, the state discovered that the headstones belonged to the former cemetery, which was sold in 1960 to make way for a D.C. Metro station. He said the headstones were moved to King George County and the remains were moved to Landover, Maryland.
“With the help of this funding, we will be able to return many of these to a better and more respectful resting place while creating a memorial to remember those that we are unable to remove. I deeply appreciate the Governor’s help in righting this terrible wrong,” said Stuart.
Northam’s ambitious effort to redesign Monument Avenue may hinge on the fate of the Robert E. Lee statue, which still remains uncertain after months of legal battles.
Lawsuits aimed at preventing the state from removing the Lee statue were filed, dropped, amended and refiled since the governor announced that he had instructed the Virginia Department of General Services to take it down as soon as possible in early June.
A Richmond judge sided with the state in the latest legal battle over the statue in late October, dissolving an injunction that had blocked the Confederate monument’s removal for months. Despite the decision, the Lee statue remains on its pedestal after a series of court filings.
The small group of Monument Avenue residents who filed the lawsuit submitted a notice of appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia days after the ruling. The high court has not yet decided whether it will hear the appeal. Patrick McSweeney, the attorney for the residents, did not immediately respond to 8News’ request seeking comment.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant originally suspended his order until after the resolution of an appeal, leading Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to file a motion for reconsideration arguing that the court did not have the authority to stop the state from removing the Confederate monument without another injunction request from the plaintiffs.
In response, Marchant issued an amended order that restores the temporary injunction from August during the appeal process.
Mercer told 8News he expects the statue to come down between February and April 2021, depending on the schedule of the Supreme Court. However, the pedestal will not be removed right away. “They’re very powerful in their own right,” said Mercer.
The plan to remove the statue from Monument Avenue, which calls for the sculpture to be “partially disassembled” into three sections, has already been unanimously approved by a state review board.
The process would require two phases, one to take down the 13-ton sculpture and another to remove the monument’s pedestal, the conservator selected by the state, B.R. Howard Conservation, said in the plan. The firm writes that based on an on-site inspection, the sculpture can be taken from its base “as a single unit,” but would need to be disassembled to “meet the highway height restrictions” during transport.
Apart from the state-owned monument of General Lee on Monument Avenue, most of the Confederate statues and memorials in Richmond have been removed and hauled away.
The only city-owned monument left is the General A.P. Hill monument, located at the intersection of W. Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road. The location of Hill’s remains, underneath his statue, has presented a unique challenge for the city.
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