RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Plans to rename the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge to Belvidere Bridge have been scrapped after opposition over the replacement’s link to a plantation mansion in Richmond built by a man who enslaved hundreds of people.
The proposal was expected to be approved by the Richmond City Council after the council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Standing Committee agreed on the renaming on Oct. 18.
But city leaders began receiving criticism over the plan, including an Oct. 9 email from local writer and community activist Mike Sarahan, before the committee recommended the proposal for approval.
Belvidere was the name of the plantation estate overlooking the James River built by William Byrd III, a planter who inherited wealth, “an estate that included more than 179,000 acres” and hundreds of enslaved people.
“I never expected to have to say this, but a City bridge should not be given the name of a slave plantation,” Sarahan wrote to the city council and Mayor Levar Stoney’s spokesperson and chief administrative officer. “The proposed name change is offensive and it should be withdrawn.”
Richmond City Councilmember Stephanie Lynch, who has been behind the effort to rename the bridge for years, decided to withdraw her proposal Wednesday. Lynch’s decision to pull the plan was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Lynch said during the Oct. 18 committee meeting that her ordinance further clarifies the replacement name. She told committee members that belvidere can be translated to “beautiful view” in Italian and that the bridge is often called the Belvidere Bridge by community members.
The Lee Bridge runs across the James River from S. Belvidere Street — the street that the bridge was set to be named after — to Cowardin Avenue.
The councilwoman also noted that she was informed about Byrd owning a home with the same name.
“It has been brought to our attention, and I want to address this, that for a very short period of time there was a house, the house was called Belvidere,” Lynch said on Oct. 18. “A house owned by William Byrd for a very short period of time.”
“That house I believe has the namesake. Whether or not the translation beautiful view came first or what have you, we don’t know. What I can tell you is that that is the least remarkable owner of that home and that that home was actually owned later on down the road by a Quaker who then converted it into a school,” she continued.
Lynch said she was open to another name if the city decided to make another change down the line, but that she thought it was the “most expedient and appropriate” step to rename the Lee Bridge the Belvidere Bridge.
“So, we have done some extensive research,” Lynch told the committee. “Our neighbors have done some extensive research on this and feel really great about A, removing those signs as quickly as possible and meeting the original goals of renaming the Robert E. Lee Bridge.”
In an interview Thursday, Lynch said she didn’t hear directly from constituents about issues with the name Belvidere Bridge but that “chatter” over its ties to Byrd led her to withdraw her proposal. She told 8News her effort to have the Lee signs removed and the bridge renamed hasn’t wavered, acknowledging that there are several “better” replacement names.
In his email, Sarahan called the proposed name replacement “an unintended but very glaring mistake.”
“In Richmond, people really do need to do their homework before deciding to pick out any old name from the past — it may just come with very unfortunate historical baggage, as is the case here,” Sarahan wrote.
Update: This story has been updated with details from Lynch’s interview with 8News, which came after publication after the councilwoman did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.