A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that towered over Richmond, Virginia, was taken down this fall. But something new went into its pedestal. Workers installed a new time capsule after fruitless efforts to locate an 1887 capsule.
The 21-foot bronze sculpture was placed atop a 40-foot granite pedestal in 1890. The sculpture stood among four other massive Confederate statues along Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
The four city-owned statues were taken down last summer. Two lawsuits seeking to block Governor Ralph Northam’s order delayed the removal of the Lee statue. But Virginia’s Supreme Court decided that the state could remove the divisive monument.
Crews spent a day moving large stones in hopes of finding the old time capsule. They reassembled the pedestal after giving up the search. A newspaper article from 1887 suggests the old capsule contains Civil War memorabilia.
The new capsule holds remembrances of current events. Those include an expired vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and a photograph of a black ballerina protesting near the Lee statue.
The pedestal will remain, at least for now. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will lead a redesign of the avenue.
Elizabeth Johnson Rice was a member of the “Richmond 34.” In 1960, that group of Virginia Union University students staged a sit-in to protest segregation at a downtown department store.
Now 80 years old, Rice compared the huge Lee statue and a far more modest marker of the sit-in. She says Richmond should work to better tell its black and civil rights history: “Even to this day, people still don’t know about the Richmond 34.”
This situation raises tough questions. How do we remember history—both the good and the sin that drives so much of it? Because Lee inherited enslaved people as if they were property and not God-created humans with souls, and he did not free them but kept them for many years, many people saw the huge statue standing proud in the state capital as glorifying slavery and wrong treatment of black people. (Read Museum Displays Exiled Statue for a look at how one group approached this issue.)
Henry Marsh III is a civil rights attorney. He was Richmond’s first black mayor. The 87-year-old was pleased that the Lee statue was removed. But he also feels there should be room to acknowledge other parts of Lee’s nonmilitary legacy, including his time as president of Washington & Lee University.
Marsh cautions against installing new statues in the future.
“I think there’s a problem with idolizing people with statues,” Marsh says. “Because times change.” Daniel 2:21 makes a similar statement: “[God] changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings.”
Why? This story prompts us to consider how we can rightly remember history with wisdom, prudence, and respect toward others.
Pray: For wisdom for those who make decisions about monuments, for the ability to respect those with whom we disagree, and for glory and honor to go to God, the author of history, and not humans.