Richmond, Virginia's searing new Emancipation and Freedom Monument, which pays tribute to African Americans who fought for equal rights before and after Emancipation. Photo by Regina H. Boone, Richmond Free Press

Poetic Justice: Are and Henceforward Shall Be Free

Summoning their "ancestral spirits," denizens of Richmond, VA, once the capital of the Lost Cause, just unveiled an Emancipation and Freedom Monument, two weeks after General Lee was ousted and almost 160 years after Lincoln declared "all persons held as slaves...henceforward shall be free." Honoring those who fought for equality and featuring a newly unshackled, whip-scarred man and a defiant woman holding a baby and the Emancipation Proclamation, the memorial was hailed as a symbol of a resilient city "the enslaved built (with) their hands" that today "we are rebuilding with our hearts."

A sliver of good news. Summoning their "ancestral spirits," Richmond, VA, once the capital of the Lost Cause, has unveiled an Emancipation and Freedom Monument honoring the contributions of 10 black Virginians who fought for racial justice before and after Emancipation. The ceremony for the memorial on Brown's Island in downtown Richmond came two weeks after the incendiary statue of Robert E. Lee, America's largest state-owned symbol of white supremacy, was unceremoniously ousted, and on the same date almost 160 years after Abraham Lincoln declared "all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are, and henceforward shall be free." Created by Oregon artist Thomas Jay Warren, the work features two bronze figures: a newly unshackled man, his back whip-scarred, and a defiant woman holding a baby and a document aloft that reads "January 1, 1863," the date the Proclamation went into effect. Signed on Sept. 22, 1862, it not only freed those enslaved but ordered the government and military "will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons." "Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice," Lincoln added, "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God."

Nearly a decade in the works, the monument project began as part of a 150th anniversary commemoration of the Proclamation by Virginia's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission. Delayed by the pandemic, its appearance after the murder of George Floyd, the rise of BLM and the removal of so many Confederate statues is "poetic justice," said state Sen. and Commission head Jennifer McClellan. So is its location, she noted. "Virginia was the birthplace of American democracy," whose leaders promised life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness even as they owned people they deemed three-fifths human. "It was also the birthplace of slavery and all the horrors that came with it," with Richmond "at the heart of that." Along with the figures, the monument highlights the name, image and brief bio of 10 African-American activists, five up to 1865 and five from 1866 to 1970. Except for one Union spy, the early exemplars were slaves, including Dred Scott and Nat Turner; after Emancipation, they are educators, politicians, journalists and women's rights activists, all now memorialized about two miles from where Lee once reigned. In an unhelpfully facile mantra, some media portrayed their recognition now as a moment of "triumph over trauma." Not quite - as was often noted, justice would be George Floyd alive - but still, it's a pained start.

"Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value," said Gov. Ralph Northam at last week's unveiling, saying the statues represent "a Virginia that tells the truth of our past so we can build a better future together." Many wept at a ceremony that offered its own poignant symbols of resilience: Morning rain gave way to glimmers of sun as the cloth was pulled off and the drums of the Elegba Folklore Society rang out. Mayor Levar Stoney likewise referenced both past and future, calling what was once the capital of the Confederacy "a capital of compassion...opportunity.. hope," a city "the enslaved built (with) their hands" that "we are rebuilding with our hearts." Historian and keynote speaker Dr. Lauranett Lee offered a reality check to such optimism, cautioning that many today still "live with fear and want." "How many of us still do not have that freedom?" she asked of "those of us who others consider marginal. "We, too, deserve all that America has promised." "Be concerned about the entire history," also warned MLK Commission member Ronald Carey, who watched the unveiling with tears in his eyes. "There are those of us here who are related in more ways than one." Still, online, civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump hailed the first state-funded tribute to emancipation, and those "whose lives represent the struggle for freedom." From one moved reader, "The world gets better." Very and too rarely, but yes.

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