This troublesome historical past grew to become even clearer in Richmond, our final vacation spot. Iconic Monument Avenue stretches for 5 miles, harking back to the Nationwide Mall and lined in components with distinguished houses and delightful historic structure. It’s marked by round flowerbeds and enclosures the place Confederate monuments as soon as stood, together with the twelve-ton bronze and marble statue of Robert E. Lee, who led the defeated Southern troops, was stripped of his American citizenship as a traitor, and has been commemorated to at the present time in public areas too quite a few to rely. The Monument Avenue statues that have been graffitied in the course of the summer season 2020 protests at the moment are laid out meticulously in Richmond’s water remedy facility, the one municipal area massive sufficient to carry them. That’s the place I noticed them. They type a graveyard of Accomplice monuments.

Whereas in Richmond, I met Devon Henry, whose common contracting firm took down the Lee monument. Throughout our dialog, I realized he was the identical common contractor who constructed the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on the Jefferson-designed College of Virginia throughout 2019 and 2020. It honors the 4,000 enslaved individuals who labored on the campus.

Henry and I talked subsequent to the Shockoe Hill African Burying Floor, the largest Black cemetery I’ve ever seen. It lies within the leafy neighborhood of Gilpin, however was divided from the historic Black neighborhood of Jackson Ward by development of I-95. Henry had joined me as a result of he can be working there with Richmond sisters Enjoli J. Moon and Sesha Joi Moon and their JXN Mission, which is reconstructing a constructing—the Skipwith-Roper Cottage—to commemorate Jackson Ward Founding Father Abraham Peyton Skipwith. The unique cottage, owned by the previously enslaved Skipwith within the 18th century and left in his will to his descendants, was forcibly condemned within the Nineteen Fifties and relocated to the Sabot Hill Plantation, which as soon as belonged to Accomplice Secretary of Struggle James Seddon. It’s a reminder that we are able to’t assume the landscapes we see mirror undisturbed historical past, or that the constructions we encounter convey true tales.

I requested Henry how lengthy it took to take away the Lee monument. He advised me he and his contractors studied it for greater than a 12 months, with sources starting from archeologists’ evaluation to drone footage. They obtained dying threats; he knew they must transfer quick as soon as the removing started. Finally, they lifted the huge statue off its granite pedestal in lower than an hour. “From right here on, I wish to use my abilities for this reparative work,” Henry advised me, gesturing in the direction of the location the place the Skipwith-Roper cottage will stand.

Listening, I thought of how even on the magnitude of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, the dimensions of the UVA campus, or the open area of this cemetery tended by generations of Black households, change can’t occur with out the human hand. By my work with the Mellon Basis’s Monuments Mission, I do know American monuments as we speak are a part of a collective effort of re-thinking, re-working, and re-imagining: we take some down, we construct others up, and within the course of, we inform the ever-evolving American story. On this contractor, I met a Virginian who was doing all of it.

All through the road trip, I meditated deeply on how we take into consideration our useless, and the way they inform our beliefs about who we’re as a rustic. At Richmond’s African Burial Floor, I noticed once more why our decisions about who we formally commemorate are essential to know. An unknown variety of Black People lie on the location of Richmond’s former slave market, the place greater than 300,000 Black individuals have been tortured, stolen, and bought. An set up will quickly mark its historical past, however the African Burial Floor has all the time existed within the reminiscence of Richmond’s Black neighborhood. A few of the Black Richmonders spoke familiarly, for instance, of a person they name Gabriel. Gabriel Prosser was an enslaved blacksmith who in 1800 deliberate some of the intensive slave revolts in American historical past. Betrayed by different enslaved Black individuals to white slave-owners, he was hung at Richmond’s metropolis gallows, which additionally stood on the African Burial Floor. The location’s new set up will share Prosser’s story with a broader public, however his descendants and neighborhood have by no means forgotten it.

Leaving Virginia, I believed again on the attractive Shockoe Hill African Burying Floor, with its bushes in aromatic flower. All all through the cemetery households honor their family members, whose tales make up the dynamic historical past of this nation. Its energy lies not solely within the individuals it holds and the descendants who keep in mind them, but in addition in what it reveals to anybody who travels to Virginia.

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, scholar, and the president of the Mellon Foundation.

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