Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

free

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

Abby Zimet

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.


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. Email: azimet18@gmail.com

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Death Valley Floods Deemed a '1,000-Year Event'

"With climate change models predicting more frequent and more intense storms, this is a place where you can see climate change in action," said the park superintendent.

Kenny Stancil ·


Warren Opens Probe Into 'Shocking and Horrific' Impacts of GOP Abortion Bans

"Let's be clear: Republican politicians are risking women's lives and health in pursuit of a dangerous, out-of-touch agenda."

Jake Johnson ·


Store Walkout Over Firing of Starbucks Union Organizer Racks Up 20 Million Views on TikTok

"Starbucks continues its rampant firing of union leaders."

Jake Johnson ·


70% of Americans Support Deciding State Abortion Rights by Ballot Measure: Poll

After an "enormous victory" in Kansas, some progressives argue that ballot measures "are the next frontier" for protecting access to reproductive healthcare.

Jessica Corbett ·


Judge Rules Walgreens 'Substantially Contributed' to San Francisco Opioid Crisis

"Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits," said an attorney for the California city.

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo