Op-Ed: It’s not enough to tear down offensive monuments; we must also ensure that the spaces they once inhabited become meaningful, vibrant destinations for residents.
In 2020, The New York Times named the pedestal of Virginia’s Robert E. Lee (Richmond) statue in its current state — featuring the names of victims of police brutality and a symbol of black empowerment — the most significant since World War II. Influential American protest art. But in December, former Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pulled it down. The statue itself had been removed a few months ago.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen this pedestal play a role: a meeting point for Black Lives Matter protests, a community vegetable garden, a public memorial to victims of police brutality, a tourist attraction, and a cabaret show. In its heyday, it was a civic and community space with a portable basketball hoop and voter registration form hanging in the middle of its turf. The Pedestal is an inspiring community space that brings people together in a neighborhood that often feels unwelcome to Richmond’s black residents. But its life as a public display of local resilience was interrupted with little community input.
The Lee Monument and four other Confederate statues once sat on Monument Avenue — a street in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood of Richmond. Monument Avenue, as long as it exists, has never been a neutral space. The street is at the heart of a white-centric interpretation of our nation’s history—building new monuments won’t completely reposition its enduring past. But as cities across the country contemplate how to replace their offensive monuments, Robert E. Lee’s pedestal shows us how monuments can not only reconcile history, but reclaim physical space through public art and community engagement.
Community-created public art transforms the Robert E. Lee Monument and its surroundings from the street you drive past (with a 100-foot aggressive statue in your rearview mirror) into a space for you to stop, communicate, and reflect. Finding ways to activate our public spaces, especially those that are not always welcoming to minority communities, is critical to truly reclaiming the land that once held Confederate monuments.
Richmond has previously tried to reconcile its past with new monuments. In 1996, the city erected a statue of Arthur Ashe, a black professional tennis player and native of Richmond, on Monument Avenue. The monument faced controversy during its construction and is noticeably smaller than other former monuments on the avenue. Not to mention, the design unfortunately looks more like a man holding a book away from four children and threatening to hit them with a racket than a respected tennis player and native of Richmond.
In 2020, Kehinde Wiley unveiled his “Rumors of War” statue in Richmond, which depicts a black man in dreadlocks, jeans and a Nike high-top, on horseback – the A tribute to an equestrian monument to a former Confederate general. The artwork is located outside the Virginia Museum of Art, just a few blocks from Monument Avenue. But the statue barely gets the same engagement as Lee’s pedestal.
What distinguishes Lee from other monuments is the organic reuse of space by residents rather than by the city. Of course, you can’t encourage residents to just destroy statues to reclaim space. But the plinth shows us how making public spaces adaptive can help local communities feel welcome and be part of creating new narratives about their city’s past. Public art is modifiable and should change so that narratives about our past reflect current conversations about our future.
Other cities in the United States are asking how to activate the space where the former Confederate monument once stood through art.In Philadelphia, Philadelphia Mural Arts has launched the Monument Lab, bringing together artists, organizations and activists to discuss how to create future monuments on an “inherited monument landscape”[s]. Monument Lab created installations in and around some of Philadelphia’s historic public squares. In Memphis, the city removed a statue of Jefferson Davis and changed the name of a nearby park named after him to River Garden. This The city went a step further, redesigning the entire park, turning the small plaza into a destination filled with swings, wildflower meadows, fire pits and concert spaces.
It is not enough to remove objectionable monuments from public life; we must also ensure that the spaces they once lived in are truly open to all residents. In addition to encouraging public art engagement, the Lee Pedestal reminds us of the importance of working with grassroots organizations, artists, and community members when asking what should replace our Confederate monuments—not just an afterthought.
The future of the pedestal is constantly changing. It is currently owned by the nearby Virginia Museum and Cultural Center of Black History. But the country can learn from the lessons of the Confederation’s former capital, as it asks what future monuments should symbolize — and should hold Richmond to a high standard for how it repositions itself of injustice.
Mia Jackson is a Masters student at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. Her articles on cities, health and innovation have appeared in Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Virginia Pilot and elsewhere.