Gov. Northam proposes $25M to transform Monument Avenue and historical sites

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/17/2020, 6 p.m.
The state would provide nearly $11 million to repopulate Monument Avenue with figures of heroes to replace the Confederate statues ...
Alex Nyerges, left, director and chief executive officer of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, talks about the proposal of Gov. Ralph S. Northam, right, to pump $25 million into transforming historical sites, including $11 million to reimagine Monument Avenue. Under the plan, unveiled last Friday outside the museum, the VMFA would lead the public effort to redesign it. Photo by Regina H. Boone

The state would provide nearly $11 million to repopulate Monument Avenue with figures of heroes to replace the Confederate statues that once dominated the street under a proposal from Gov. Ralph S. Northam.

The state’s chief executive also is proposing to provide $9.1 million to support development of a slavery heritage site in Shockoe Bottom and for development of a monument to emancipation on Brown’s Island.

The funding is part of a $25 million package Gov. Northam announced he would include in the new state budget to assist “in the transformation of historical sites and advance historic justice initiatives.”

The Democratic governor called his proposal an “investment that will help Virginia tell the true story of our past and continue building an inclusive future. At a time when the Commonwealth and the country are grappling with how to present a more com- plete and honest picture of our complex history, we must work to enhance public spaces.”

Four city-owned Confederate statues were removed from Monument Avenue during the summer. Only the giant, state- owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee remains, with the state attorney general now requesting the state Supreme Court to clear a lower court’s order blocking the statue’s removal.

While the governor’s proposal drew cheers from Mayor Levar M. Stoney and others who called it positive, some expressed disappointment.

The Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which has spent 16 years seeking to acknowledge, preserve and protect Richmond’s history as a major slave center, expressed its concern.

Phil Wilayto and Ana Edwards of the Virginia Defenders called spending $11 million on new statues for Monument Avenue disturbing given the major challenges families are fac- ing during the pandemic in paying rent and securing food. In a news release, they stated that the empty pedestals where the city statues stood are sufficient.

Gov. Northam wants the legislature to earmark money to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which then could hire staff and begin a process involving the community in a redesign of the statue sites and potential replacements.

“The funding would allow us to re-envision Monument Av- enue as an inspirational, forward-thinking, inclusive and healing place” for residents and visitors, Alex Nyerges, director and chief executive officer of the museum, stated.

The governor’s $9 million proposal for Shockoe Bottom would add to the $9 million the state previously made available during Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration for development of a slavery heritage site and for improvements to the Richmond Slave Trail.

Gov. Northam stated the new funding will support ef- forts to preserve the historical site known as the Devil’s Half-Acre, or Lumpkin’s Jail, one of the most notorious of the slave jails on the site and later the first home of a school that would become Virginia Union University.

Mr. Wilayto and Ms. Edwards noted the governor did not mention the initiative to expand the slavery heritage site to include two blocks now used for parking that border Grace Street where at least five slave auction sites were once located.

City Council has endorsed the mayor’s plan to invest $1.7 million to buy the Grace Street parking lots for the slave memorial park. Mayor Stoney also has said he likely would propose up to $50 million in the next capital budget for development of a park and history site that would include the expanded space for the memorial park as well as development of a history site at Lumpkin’s Jail.

The package the governor presented also includes $100,000 to support development of the Virginia Eman- cipation and Freedom Monument on Brown’s Island. The monument was proposed by the legislature’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission led by Richmond state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan.

The governor also wants to spend $5 million to recover tombstones of African-Americans that in 1960 were removed from the Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Northern Virginia and used as riprap for erosion control along the shoreline of the Potomac River.

“I was horrified when I discovered the headstones from Columbian Harmony Cemetery were scattered along two miles of shoreline on the Potomac River,” stated Republican state Sen. Richard H. Stuart of Westmoreland County. “With the help of this funding, we will be able to return many of these (tombstones) to a better and more respectful resting place while creating a memorial to remember those that we are unable to remove.”