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Richmond’s Toppled Jefferson Davis Statue Could Find New Home At The Valentine

the jefferson davis monument with graffiti all over it
The Jefferson Davis statue on May 31, after it was vandalized during a protest. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

On the night of June 10, protesters used rope tied to a car to pull a bronze statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis off its towering pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.  The action was part of the Black Lives Matter movement and near-nightly protests since late May.

Now, the statue of Davis could end up in Richmond’s local history museum, the Valentine. 

Bill Martin, the Director of the Valentine, said the museum is in talks with the city over acquiring the statue and plans to make a formal offer soon, pending approval from the board of directors.

“We certainly need to acknowledge that what has happened over the last two months is a transformative moment in Richmond history,” Martin said in an interview with VPM. “This work, as part of many monuments on Monument Avenue, gives us an opportunity to explore not only the history of that monument but also the history of this moment.”

A potential plan to bring the Davis statue into the Valentine’s collection is not a new one. Martin said it’s been a topic of ongoing discussions between the museum and the city since the Monument Avenue Commission was formed in 2017. 

After nearly a year of public meetings, the Monument Avenue Commission  produced a final report in July 2018, outlining a series of recommendations. Among them was the recommendation that the Jefferson Davis monument be removed. 

“Of all the statues, this one is the most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment,” the report said, referring to the turn-of-the-century movement to re-write the history of the Confederacy and minimize its commitment to slavery. “Davis was not from Richmond or Virginia.”

The Commission’s report noted that the Davis statue was created by Edward Virginius Valentine in a studio that is now a part of the Valentine museum. 

“Since the Monument Avenue Commission report, the [Valentine] board has supported, if, in fact, the community desired it down, that its connections to Richmond are so strong that we would accept it into our collection,” Martin said. 

If they are successful in acquiring the Davis statue, it would be the largest item in the museum’s collection. Martin said the Valentine has confirmed it would fit in multiple locations throughout the building.

The museum envisions displaying the statue as part of a larger exhibition on the meaning of the Lost Cause and the meaning of the current anti-racist movement unfolding across the U.S. However, the museum does not plan to move forward without a lot of thought. Martin said the museum is currently working to put together an advisory board of community members that can weigh in on the future exhibition and any decision to display the Davis statue.

“We are not that place that is interested in preserving the Lost Cause,” he said. “We have a lot of it in the collection, but that is just one moment in Richmond history and what has happened over the last several weeks is yet another moment that we have to document.”

The Valentine recently put on a Monument Avenue-centric exhibition called “Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion.” The exhibit displayed works from numerous architects, artists and planners that re-imagined the historic thoroughfare. 

For the Valentine and most local museums across the country, collecting items associated with recent history isn’t the norm. That’s changed as  the coronavirus pandemic and  a large social movement have upended business as usual. 

Martin said they usually acquire items “after time has already had an ability to filter.”

“For history museums, this more contemporary collecting is something that’s really important if we’re going to connect to communities today,” he said.

Richmond City Council has not yet laid out a formal process it will follow to decide where the city’s Confederate monuments end up. Many of them are currently being  stored at Richmond’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Earlier this month, City Council asked anyone interested in the statues to send a letter outlining where the monument will be displayed, who will pay for the transport and a timeline for moving it off city property. Council members and Mayor Levar Stoney’s office have collectively received over a dozen letters from individuals and organizations offering to take ownership of specific monuments.

Stoney told VPM via email Tuesday that he would like the statues to end up in a place where they can be contextualized and where they can serve as a “powerful reminder and warning for future generations.”

“My hope is that they do not find another home where the shameful past they represented and the oppression they perpetuated is celebrated, but where it can be studied, such as in a museum or park with proper historical context,” Stoney said.

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