The removal of the Lee monument is a step forward, but we can’t get complacent

Illustration by Anna Yang

Ishaan Nandwani, Contributing Writer

I remember the first time I drove on Monument Avenue my freshman year. As an out-of-state student at VCU — and a newbie to Richmond — I was blissfully unaware of the abundance of history my new home came with.

At over 60 feet tall — towering over all other monuments on the street — the Robert E. Lee monument instantly drew my attention. “Wow. This must be to commemorate someone really influential,” I thought to myself.

However, as I would learn very soon, I could have not been more wrong.  

The monument, installed in 1890, was built to honor Lee, the commander of the Confederate army. As a Confederate general, Lee was a white supremacist, traitor and steadfast opponent of racial equality. 

I was immediately surprised by the statue’s glorification in Richmond; a progressive city with a large Black population. Why had such a man been glorified for so long?

I discovered that many locals echoed my feelings. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the statue was graffitied during the racial justice protests that ensued, and officially ordered for removal by Gov. Ralph Northam on June 4 of that same year.

Earlier this month, Northam’s order went into effect as the monument was removed from its pedestal on Sept. 8. I was there on that historic day, and as I cheered amid hundreds of community members as the crane lifted the statue from its base, I knew that the tide of history had begun to change.

However, while the removal of the monument was certainly a step in the right direction, our crusade against white supremacy and support of Black lives must not end there. We must do more.

For too long, the Black population in Richmond has suffered under the culture of white supremacy. These issues have persisted for years in our local schools, the criminal justice system and so much more.

And they will continue to persist after the statue’s removal.

It’s important to remember that while tangible gestures are meaningful, they do not make up for or fix decades of subjugation. The removal of the Lee monument was the very least this city could do.

So, you might wonder — what’s next? We need to continue to work on critical issues that affect people of color in Richmond. One important area to address is education. 

The government needs to invest more money into the underfunded public school system, which espouses a dropout rate greater than any other county in Virginia with Latino and Black students disproportionately affected, with a 33% and 81% graduation rate in 2020 respectively, according to the Richmond Free Press. Moreover, critical race theory and preservation of Black Lives Matter signage is essential to take a stand against white supremacy.

With respect to the physical space on Monument Avenue, the green space surrounding the monument should be maintained as a space for the community. The colorful pedestal should remain standing, as a reminder that history is ours for the making, and up to us to redefine. Recreational activities around the statue, such as basketball and use of the community garden, should continue to take place.

Additionally, any new statues that replace the Confederate statues should represent the people. The last remaining statue on Monument Avenue, the Arthur Ashe Monument — honoring the Richmond-born tennis player who experienced segregation and became the first Black man to win the U.S. Open — is a great representation of what any future statues should look like. 

These monuments should tell the story of the people whose voices have been unheard for too long, and champion the figures who have helped bring us to a place where equality is no longer a distant dream.

Richmond is a city that is a work in progress. It’s certainly inspiring to see the structures of elitism and power that have harmed the city’s most vulnerable for decades start to fall, but if we are to cultivate long-lasting change, there’s more to be done, and complacency is not an option.

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