RICHMOND, Va. — A new monument dedicated to the African-Americans who fought for freedom in the U.S. was unveiled in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday, just weeks after the city removed one of the largest monuments dedicated to the Confederacy.
The Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown Island honors the contributions of African-Americans in Virginia who fought for freedom both before and after Emancipation.
The two 12 foot bronze statues depict a man, woman, and child newly freed from slavery.
The woman is cradling a child and holding a piece of paper with the date Jan. 1, 1863 — the date that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The monument depicts the man, with whipping scars visible on his back, breaking free from a set of shackles.
Names, images, and biographies of ten Virginians whose lives represent the struggle for freedom, both before and after Emancipation, are displayed on the monument. The names were selected by the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission out of more than 100 nominations;
.Five were chosen to represent the time before Emancipation:
- Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a spy for the Union in the Confederate White House
- William Harvey Carney, a former slave who fought in the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment and for his actions at Fort Wagner, was the first African American awarded the Medal of Honor
- Gabriel, who led one of the half-dozen most important insurrection plots in the history of North American slavery
- Dred Scott, an enslaved man whose unsuccessful lawsuit for his freedom led to the infamous Supreme Court decision that persons of African descent were not United States citizens
- Nat Turner, leader of the only successful slave revolt in Virginia's history, shattering the myth of the contented slave
Five other names were chosen to represent the time after Emancipation to 1970:
- Rosa Dixon Bowser, an educator, women's rights activist, and social reformer who founded the first African American teachers association and co-founded the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and the National Association of Colored Women
- John Mercer Langston, Virginia's first African American member of Congress and the first president of what is now Virginia State University
- John Mitchell, Jr., a community activist, the first African American to run for Governor of Virginia, and editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, which covered local, national, and worldwide news, especially lynchings, segregation, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan
- Lucy Simms, a prominent educator who taught three generations of African American children in the Harrisonburg area
- Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a Petersburg minister, civil rights activist, chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he hoped future generations see the monuments as symbols of hope and the enduring will to fight for freedom.
Work on the statues was started in 2012 by a commission marking 150 years since the proclamation.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, chaired the commission. She called the statue her labor of love and said the monument painted a more complete and honest history of Virginia.
"That this monument, in particular, represents the triumph over tragedy and trauma and the hope that the enslaved people felt — that one day they'd be free and that was a struggle, and they feel all of that here," she said.
The unveiling comes just weeks after crews took down an enormous statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue — located about two miles from where the new Emancipation and Freedom Monument stands.
The removal capped a year-long legal fight over the statue, which began in 2020 during the racial justice protests across the country following the death of George Floyd.
Northam told the audience Wednesday that the removal of the Robert E. Leee statue was one of his proudest moments as governor. He said the Emancipation and Freedom monument unveiled at Brown's Island represents the Virginia of today and the future.
"They're symbols of a Virginia that's reckoning with ugliness and inequality," Northam said. "A Virginia that's taking a deep hard look into what we need to do better and how to get there, a Virginia that tells the truth of our past so we can build a better future together."
This story was originally published by Caroline Coleburn and Cameron Thompson on Scripps station WTVR in Richmond, Virginia.