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Crowds celebrated a new monument commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people

People sing in front of a statue
The Levitical Priests sing at the ceremony for the unveiling of the new Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Brown's Island. (Photo: Patrick Larsen/VPM News)

In Richmond, officials including Gov.  Ralph Northam, Mayor Levar Stoney and members of the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission unveiled a new monument on Wednesday. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation — which declared enslaved people in the seceded Confederate states to be free.

The bronze statue of a man, woman and infant just freed from slavery now stands on Brown’s Island. It was sculpted by artist Thomas Jay Warren, who is white. It’s been almost a decade in the making.

This comes just two weeks after a towering statue of Robert E. Lee was taken down in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.

The dedication began with a libation ceremony performed by the Elegba Folklore Society. Water was poured to honor Africans kidnapped from their homeland, enslaved people and Black people who fought for freedom. They were called by name.

Hundreds of people braved heavy rain to see the reveal of man, woman and child, standing 12 feet tall. Chains are falling, suspended in mid-air, from the man’s wrists, and the woman carries a look of determination.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan heads the commission tasked with memorializing the emancipation of enslaved Americans.

“When you come to this statue and you see the whip marks on the man’s back, but you see the baby in the woman’s arms, I mean it really does represent hope and triumph over unspeakable pain and terror and trauma,” McClellan said.

For her, public art has a responsibility to speak to trauma — it’s part of what she calls the story of us.

Northam said this monument represents Virginia today: “Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value.”

The monument has been in the works for nearly a decade and was supposed to go up in 2019. But with last year’s racial justice protests and the removal of Confederate memorials nationwide, McClellan says the timing feels right.

“It’s needed now more, because since then, we’ve suffered so much trauma with the murder of George Floyd and this reckoning,” she said.

The woman stands on a pedestal that bears the likenesses and descriptions of ten Black Virginians.

Among them, newspaperman John Mitchell Jr., who fearlessly campaigned against lynchings, and Nat Turner, leader of one of the most significant rebellions of enslaved people in American history.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.