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May 29 - then and now - has become a powerful day in Richmond history

If you’re looking for a notable day in Richmond history, consider May 29.

First, go back 130 years — to May 29, 1890, and the unveiling of the Robert E. Lee monument.

“When the veil was drawn,” the Richmond Dispatch reported of the day’s event, “Lee was revealed in the centre of a world of Confederates, whose cheers well nigh silenced the rounds of musketry and the cannon’s roar: whose jubilations were almost as wildly enthusiastic as if the object of their admiration had reappeared in flesh and blood.”

Indeed, Lee was taking on a new life — one that has towered over Richmond, literally and figuratively, for generations.

May 29, 2020, had no such grandeur here.

It was a Friday — the day a white Minneapolis police officer was charged with murder in the death earlier that week of a black man, George Floyd. In the evening, protesters took to the streets of Richmond, chanting “no justice, no peace, no racist police.”

The march began around 8:30 p.m. at Monroe Park, adjacent to the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. It went north to Broad Street and circled several blocks around VCU and Richmond police buildings. It traveled through downtown.

Marchers chanted and held signs saying “Am I next?” and “Two deadly viruses are killing Americans: COVID-19 and racism.”

That evening’s march appeared to attract a couple hundred people — far fewer than the 75,000 to 100,000 who, 130 years to the day earlier, had gathered near the same spaces to celebrate Lee’s supposed immortality.

But voices can move monuments.

That Friday’s march sparked several days of intense protests over racism in America, and they soon made their way to the Lee monument. The ensuing crowds and graffiti cast the statue in a very different light: Lee still stood tall for the Confederacy — but the Lost Cause narrative he long represented was losing a decisive battle.

Within a week, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Confederate general from his granite perch, which sits on state land. After years — decades — of controversy over one of Richmond’s defining features, the days are numbered for this, the most imposing monument on what became Monument Avenue.

And with the Richmond City Council — soon to be empowered with the option — on the cusp of ordering the removal of Lee’s statuary compatriots, Monument Avenue faces an uncertain future. And perhaps a new cause.


On May 29, 1890, the cause was clear as the veil fell from the new statue.

“Veterans shouted and cried and hugged each other. The young men roared out with their applause,” the Dispatch wrote. “It was an extraordinary exhibition of joy; a tidal wave of ecstasy. ... Lee was the beautiful personation of a people and their cause. ...

“Oh! who among the elderly people that saw them yesterday but was carried back to 1861, when the Southern troops came to Richmond; when the war spirit was glowing in every breast; when patriotic fires burned in all hearts; when every note, every syllable of the popular air spoke to our honest purpose — ‘to live or die for Dixie.’ ”

That image of Richmond has persisted for more than a century, even as the city and region have increasingly reckoned with their history of slavery and racism.

But the voices that rose anew on May 29, 2020, had roots from many generations before. Consider the Richmond Planet, the African American newspaper in Richmond that was founded in the 1880s by former slaves and was long led with fervor by editor John Mitchell Jr.

The Planet also reported on the unveiling — in a decidedly different way. It noted, for example, that Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy refused to allow the United States Marine Band to participate in the ceremonies.

It also remarked on how Richmond’s unfinished City Hall was covered with a giant Confederate flag — one that extended the full length of the building.

“The South may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong steps in so doing, and proceeds to go [too] far in every similar celebration,” the Planet reported of the Lee ceremony.

“It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound.”

A Planet editorial that week posed questions that, like Monument Avenue, came to define Richmond and, in many ways, America.

“But what does this display of Confederate emblems mean?” the editorial asked. “What does it serve to teach the rising generations of the South? Why this placing of Lee on equality with Washington. ...

“This glorification of States Rights Doctrine — the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause — fosters in this Republic the spirit of Rebellion and will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.

“There is lacking in all this display the proper appreciation of the Union. ... It serves to reopen the wound of war and cause to drift further apart the two sections. It furnishes an opportunity for designing politicians in both parties to take advantage of the situation, and the country suffers.”


Shortly before 4 p.m. on May 29, 1890, Virginia Gov. Philip Watkins McKinney called to order the gathering on the Lee monument grounds.

“With no disloyalty in our hearts to the government under which we live and with no desire to awaken or perpetuate old animosities,” McKinney said, “we come with sacred memory for our cause which is lost, with a love and admiration for our dear ones who have fallen which is unconquerable and eternal. This is the feeling of the Southern people.”

Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston then took the rope and looked up to the veil covering Lee.

“He hesitated a moment. The quiver of his hands was perceptible. Every eye in the great throng was fixed upon the veil,” the Dispatch wrote. “It parted at the top and General Lee’s head appeared in sight. The covering hung slightly on the shoulders of the rider. General Johnston gave another pull and the veil, which was in two pieces, fell on either side of the monument.”

And there was Lee, atop more than 40 feet of granite — “a calm, majestic figure, gracefully outlined against the bluest of Virginian skies,” the report said. “It was like a dream. Here Lee was once more among his faithful people.”

Tens of thousands of yells greeted him. “Hats and handkerchiefs were thrown into the air as such was never seen before.”

On May 29, 2020, the only handkerchiefs were covering the faces of some marchers — a reflection of activism amid the coronavirus pandemic. They were faithful to a cause far different than Lee’s.

Their message was clear: change.

“You will tell your children about how you paved the way for a better future,” a young marcher said several days later as protests grew. “This is history.”

Indeed, it is. Within days, Northam picked up the thread from his successor more than a century earlier.

“It was wrong then,” the governor said of the Lee monument, “and it is wrong now. So we’re taking it down.”

'I don't think things are going to be the same': Civil rights leaders Wilder, Hill Jr., Marsh, Reid reflect on this week

Oliver Hill Jr. is a psychologist, a student of comparative history, and the son of a civil rights icon.

Hill watched it all come together in the streets of Richmond in the past week. Public revulsion over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted demonstrations that he said brought Virginia to “a tipping point” in the long struggle of African Americans for civil rights in the shadow of Confederate statues they see as symbols of white supremacy and distorted history.

No longer.

The statues of Confederate leaders will come down, beginning with the most imposing of them all — Gen. Robert E. Lee, astride his horse high above the city streets since its unveiling almost exactly 130 years ago. Four others are poised to follow under a new state law and city commitment to remove them.

“I think it’s long overdue,” said Hill, whose father, attorney Oliver Hill Sr., played a pivotal role in legal desegregation of public schools across the United States. “You could almost feel a shift in the collective ethos in the city about these issues.”

The demonstrations over the slow-motion death of a black man under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis played out in Richmond and other communities across the country already gripped by a coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately affected African Americans and Hispanics.

But in Richmond, the demonstrations played out primarily on the city’s grandest street, lined with statues erected to celebrate the Confederate cause long after the Civil War had ended. An epoch that began at the end of the 19th century came to a sudden reckoning in the 21st century.

“It’s going to move swiftly now,” predicted Dr. W. Ferguson Reid, the first African American elected to the Virginia General Assembly since the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

“You have to reach what I call critical mass,” said Reid, 95, who was first elected in 1968 and re-elected twice to a multijurisdictional seat in the Richmond area. “Once it meets that critical mass, it explodes.”

However, Reid and other lions of the civil rights era say the toppling of monuments isn’t the real work that Virginians of all races and ethnicity must do, especially with the continuing threat of the coronavirus to people’s lives and livelihoods.

“This is no damn time for me to be happy,” said former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected governor in the country’s history. “I don’t believe in symbolism as such. I believe in the real deal.”

For Wilder, who served one term as Richmond’s popularly elected mayor, the real issues are “the lack of education and ... the continuing lack of justice in this country.”

“I haven’t called for any of [the statues] to be removed,” he said. “I called for education.”

Wilder recalled opposition, from both white and black leaders, to his proposal to erect a monument to Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue in 1996, three years after the Richmond-born tennis champion and humanitarian died of a different deadly virus, AIDS.

When he was governor, Wilder had Ashe’s body laid in state in the Executive Mansion, where Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had been mourned similarly after his death during the war in 1863.

Wilder also led the effort to make the birthday of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a state holiday and eliminate “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” as the state song, but he faults leaders of both races for failing to improve education and other opportunities for African Americans.

“It is a teachable moment, but who’s going to teach it?” he asked.

Former Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, said he had similar priorities after he was elected as Richmond’s first black mayor in 1977.

Marsh said he and the majority-black council laughed when they found out about what he described as a secret effort by white members of the General Assembly to block any attempts to remove the Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue.

“To think that our priority for Richmond was removing the statues!” he said with a chuckle. “We were concerned about segregation of the schools. We were concerned about jobs.”

But the Confederate monuments still bothered him and other civil rights leaders who had grown up in their shadows.

“Those were definitely message statues,” Hill said.

The message, articulated by Gov. Ralph Northam in a speech last week to announce the removal of the Lee statue from state-owned property on Monument Avenue, was that the monuments were erected during the Jim Crow era as the state passed laws to subjugate blacks and to deny them rights to vote and use the same public facilities as white Virginians.

“The message was clearly a message of white supremacy,” Hill said. “It was a given. It didn’t have to be overt.”

He was among the first students to integrate Richmond public schools as a 12-year-old in 1961. He was surprised by a different version of history taught in white schools than what he had learned in the black community.

“I was literally shocked at the stories they were telling about the happy black slaves,” Hill said.

Those stories were part of the history represented by the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.

Reid said the statues went up on Monument “to make it clear, ‘we’re still in charge, and don’t you ever forget it.’”

He doesn’t want the bronze statues melted. He wants them to be used to educate.

“You do with the monuments the same things you did with the dinosaurs — you put them in museums,” Reid said.

However, Wilder offered a pointed reminder to Northam that other monuments to Lee and Confederate leaders remain in the state Capitol, where the moment that Lee accepted command of the Army of Northern Virginia is commemorated with a bronze, life-sized statue in the Old House of Delegates Chamber.

“You get to say about what happens out on the street,” Wilder said of the governor. “What do you say about where the laws are made?”

And there is also the Capitol Square statue of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., a segregationist Democrat who led the Massive Resistance effort to close public schools rather than allow them to be racially integrated after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., decision that Oliver Hill Sr. helped win at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, and other House Democrats are already talking about legislation to remove Byrd’s statue from the Capitol grounds.

First, however, Reid said the state must pursue the larger goals of the public protests that shook Virginia in the past 10 days.

“You need the protests and you need the political action both,” he said. “They have to follow it up with political actions and come up with solutions.”

Police reforms are at the top of the list after the public spectacle of Floyd’s death on Memorial Day.

“We’ve had [police] killings before, but none as visible to so many people, none as excruciatingly hard to watch,” said Marsh, who practiced law with Oliver Hill Sr. and civil rights lawyer Samuel Tucker. “I just had to cry when I looked at it.”

He commended the racially diverse protests, which he described as “peaceful, for the most part,” despite violence, looting and burning in parts of downtown Richmond last weekend.

“You’ll always have some people who take advantage of a peaceful demonstration,” he said. “Some of them don’t know any better. Some of them deliberately do it.”

On Monday, the night before Northam made the decision to remove the Lee statue, Richmond police fired tear gas to disperse a peaceful protest around the statue shortly before a city curfew was to take effect. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief William Smith publicly apologized the next day, and the mayor announced his proposal to remove four Confederate statues from city property on Monument Avenue.

“It was a turning point,” Hill said.

Hill and Marsh say they believe the dramatic events of last week will lead to real progress in protecting civil rights.

“My father was always optimistic,” Hill said. “He was a believer in the power of the law and holding people accountable to the power of the law.

“Sometimes progress is slow, but sometimes it arrives quickly in ways you didn’t anticipate,” he said.

Marsh said, “I don’t think things are going to be the same.”

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A painful week pushed Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney toward a historic decision

Levar Stoney’s hands shook as he tried to steady the megaphone.

Facing a charged crowd of more than 1,500 on the steps of City Hall, Richmond’s black mayor tried to atone for why his police force had fired tear gas on Black Lives Matter protesters standing with their hands raised beneath the Robert E. Lee monument a night earlier.

After emerging to a chorus of boos, he tried to relay the apology he had rehearsed. Jeers drowned him out. Some sought to quiet the crowd to give him a few minutes to speak. Others had already heard enough.

“Yesterday we violated [the social] contract,” he said, to shouts of “Yes you did!” A woman grabbed another megaphone and screamed for resignations. Others shouted profanities. An 8-year-old girl who wanted to talk said she was afraid to speak up (she did).

What he thought would be a public apology became a public reckoning for Stoney, a Democrat with well-publicized ambition for higher office who’s up for re-election in November. A confrontation that could have derailed his political career set in motion a historic decision he would announce a day later.

At a point he looked down to see wet clumps spilling out of a brown bag labeled “BAG of SHIT for BAGS of SHIT,” tossed within inches of his navy blue sneakers.

Words had failed him. They wouldn’t be enough, he told the crowd.

Then what will you do, they demanded.

After facing them for an hour, he ducked back into City Hall and broke down.

Later that night, he marched with protesters to the Lee monument — his first visit there, he said — a gesture meant to demonstrate his solidarity with demonstrators. It did little to appease some he marched alongside. They booed him as he left.

Back home that night after one of the most painful days of his term, he realized he had to embrace his emotions instead of fighting to control them. More tears had followed his encounter with Lee.

“The reason I cried, the reason I became emotional was the pain that I felt out there was more than just — as a collection of grief, I thought, that is more than just police brutality,” Stoney said in a brief interview on Friday. “It’s racism, it’s injustices. Folks who feel like people have been marginalized for too long.”

The uprising over systemic racism and policing landed on Richmond’s streets in what already had been a trying year. In the midst of a pandemic that’s spotlighted the city’s disparities, Stoney still is recovering from the failed Navy Hill downtown redevelopment bid, targeted by activists and ultimately torpedoed by the City Council.

On Tuesday, when he leaned into his personal experience as a 39-year-old black man who understands racism, the crowd outside of City Hall shouted him down.

“You’re not saying anything and that’s why we’re not listening. We want actions. We want concrete actions,” Princess Blanding, sister of Marcus-David Peters, who was killed by a Richmond police officer while in mental health crisis two years ago, said into a microphone. “We don’t trust you.”

The crowd cheered wildly as she held eye contact with him while he stood quietly two feet away.

Within 48 hours, even his fiercest rivals had conceded that his call for removing the four city-controlled statues on Monument Avenue was right for Richmond; a breakneck turnaround in a dizzying week that had challenged his political future.

“I know that as my job I’m the face of local government here,” he said in an interview Friday, of facing the crowd. “I think folks were just fed up with government in general, I mean, all levels, and I happened to be the closest person to them. And sometimes you have to put yourself out there to get knocked down a little bit, and I’m willing to do that for my city.”

Instead of retreating, he accepted an invitation to join marchers, and ultimately embraced activists’ demands, including an alert named for Peters that would tap mental health professionals as the first responders for people in mental health crises, not police.

He also is establishing an independent civilian review board to oversee Richmond police. The department is now facing a federal lawsuit over the tear gassing incident and has yet to detail a review or disciplinary actions Chief William Smith on Monday said were being considered.

Friday afternoon, he said the week had “put a mirror in front of us and we have to ask ourselves: ‘Do we approve of the image that has been reflected back?’”

Although Stoney has said he personally believes the monuments should come down, his administration has not pursued that course aggressively before this week.

In 2017, after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, he seated a panel of historians, preservationists and others to chart a course on the long divisive issue. That panel said the following year the Jefferson Davis statue should come down, but the city should add context to the others.

As for the state-owned Lee statue, it was out of the city’s hands.

Stoney said he’s jogged and driven by the statues but never stood to face the 60-foot-tall tribute to Lee, whose own descendant said in public remarks Thursday was an “idol of white supremacy.”

“When you are in its presence and you look straight up it is daunting, it’s intimidating. That struck me,” Stoney said. “I’d never done that, but why would I? I’m a black man. Why would I go to see a Confederate monument?”

Stoney said he struggled Tuesday night to explain to protesters why the city couldn’t take immediate action, a concern he relayed that evening in a Facebook Live event hosted by the Metropolitan African American Baptist Church.

“They don’t recognize the systems in which we work, that there’s a process to everything we do,” a visibly tired Stoney said in a split-screen with pastors and other local officials. “Frankly, they want action today, they want action now. And as we all know as students of government is that it doesn’t work that way. It just does not work that way. We don’t get change tomorrow.”

But Richmond could have it, beginning July 1, thanks to a bill passed by the newly Democratic-controlled legislature that hands control of war memorials over to localities. All nine members of the City Council said they would support his call for removal following the events of the last week.

Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday ordered the state-controlled Lee statue removed from Monument Avenue within weeks.

Stoney wasn’t sure whose decision came first but said he hadn’t run his Wednesday removal announcement past Northam.

“I don’t know if they let us know first and didn’t know what our thinking was,” Stoney said. “My chief of staff was talking to his chief of staff.”

At the official announcement Thursday, Stoney said tears rolled quietly behind his face mask. He and Northam expanded on the decision to take down the statues, now covered in graffiti from protesters demanding police accountability and calling for an end to systemic racism.

He declined to detail any threats related to the announcement but said he’s been inundated with support from family and from friends of all racial and political backgrounds, saying “number one what you did on Tuesday was courageous, but I could not be more proud of my city and my leadership in my city after the [Monuments] decision.”

“When they are removed it will be a watershed moment,” Stoney said. “Not just in Richmond history but in American history.”

Virginia's health department is looking for 1,300 COVID-19 contact tracers. So far, it's hired 168.

Virginia’s contact tracing hiring remains far short of official goals as the state moves ahead with the next phase of reopening and hundreds of state health staff remain reassigned to tracing roles.

As of Thursday, the Virginia Department of Health had hired only 168 contact tracers among thousands of applications since it kicked off a hiring campaign in mid-May.

The delay in hiring comes amid nationwide calls by health experts for more testing and contact tracing to safely reopen state economies. More than 800,000 Virginians have filed unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic.

The state’s contact tracing workforce is tasked with tracking down the known contacts of anyone who tests positive for COVID-19, gauging their symptoms and risk level, and connecting them to testing if deemed necessary.

The department announced in April that it was angling to hire 1,300 contractors to do this work, including 200 case investigators, 1,000 contact tracers, 10 regional testing coordinators, 10 regional supervisors, 70 data managers and five data analysts.

So far, the state has hired 114 contact tracers, 46 case investigators and seven workers for the remaining positions, the department said in response to a request. A VDH spokeswoman said 101 more will start in the coming week. Sixty other candidates are likely to start by the end of the week, she said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Virginia Department of Health staff remain reassigned to contact tracing roles, including environmental health specialists and nutritionists who work with low-income women and children.

In late May, state officials said the state had 129 tracers before the pandemic, and that it had boosted that workforce with reassigned VDH staff or Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers. On Friday evening, a VDH spokeswoman could not verify exactly how many people are doing tracing work in the state.

Last month, the Northam administration committed $58 million in federal emergency aid to expand contact tracing. Virginia State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said the work would become critical in containing the spread of COVID-19. Oliver said at the time that the VDH had received 6,000 applications.

“As we interact more, there will be more opportunity for [people with the virus] to infect others,” Oliver told the Senate Finance committee May 19. Oliver also told the committee the department expected to begin hiring several hundred people a week.

Marshall Vogt, who is leading the state’s contact tracing program, acknowledged the state has not met its hiring goals.

“We’re excited to start getting people on board. This is the start of a mammoth effort to scale up our tracing workforce in Virginia,” Vogt said.

Vogt said he anticipates more workers will start this week. He said filling those jobs will be critical to abate COVID-19 and return VDH employees reassigned to tracing work back to their original positions.

“We want to allow some of our reassigned workforce to start going back to work,” Vogt said.

He encouraged people looking for work to visit the VDH website to apply. “We are looking for people that want to serve their communities in the fight against COVID-19, are good communicators and willing to learn.”

The state’s lagging contact tracing hiring efforts come as most of Virginia — save Richmond and Northern Virginia — is lifting restrictions that will allow for indoor dining at restaurants and gatherings of up to 50 people.

At the same time, COVID-19 trends in the state suggest the virus’s spread has slowed significantly here, even amid the first phase of reopening, which began on May 15, and the busy Memorial Day holiday. Large protests around the country could lead to another spike.

Testing in the state is now at roughly 10,000 tests per day, with the share of positives down to around 10% from a peak of 22% in mid-April.

Gov. Ralph Northam said the positive trends led him to usher most of Virginia into the second phase of the state’s gradual reopening, one that will undoubtedly increase social interaction.

In past weeks, Northam and Virginia health officials have said that reopening safely will include ample testing and contact tracing, which will help isolate those who are sick from the rest of the population, the best way to contain a virus for which there is no vaccine.

Virginia officials pledged on May 6 to hire 1,000 more contact tracers to boost a workforce that was then at 325 tracers.

In a position statement issued in April, the National Association of County and City Health Officials said that during normal times, the baseline number of health care workers doing tracing work should be 15 workers per 100,000 people. During a pandemic, they said, that number should double to 30 workers per 100,000 people.

In Virginia, that would equal 1,275 workers under “normal times,” according to NACCHO, and 2,550 workers amid the pandemic.

Vogt said the state is aiming to have a 1,300-person tracing workforce by the end of June and to meet the 2,550 threshold by the end of the year.

“We know that a well-staffed contact tracing effort is going to be critical. We have to be prepared for good data trends, or bad data trends, until we know COVID-19 is nipped in the bud, so to speak,” he said.

Through the contact tracing process, the state will compile a list of known contacts for a new COVID-19 patient, “people that might have been exposed to that case while they were contagious,” Vogt said.

Those individuals are then contacted, and asked about any illness or symptoms. If they report any, the state will direct them to get tested. If they do not, the state will encourage them to self-quarantine and monitor their symptoms for 14 days.

“What we’re trying to do is check in with those contacts and kind of monitor them throughout their incubation period. If they develop symptoms, we want to get them tested. If they become a case, the whole process starts over again.”