Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Painstaking efforts reveal almanac, photo and coin buried under Lee monument

woman working on lead box
Gov. Ralph Northam and First Lady Pamela Northam watched as a conservator tried to open the box. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

On Wednesday, after hours of work by state conservators, Virginia officials took a first look inside the lead box recently discovered under the pedestal of the removed Robert E. Lee monument. Many, including  Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, speculated that it was a much written about 1887 time capsule placed by Richmond residents and organizations when the statue was installed.

The box contained three books, one of which appears to be an 1875 almanac. It also held a coin and cloth envelope containing a picture. All of the items had sustained water damage, according to conservators.

The box was uncovered this month as crews worked to remove the graffiti-covered stone pedestal, recognized by the New York Times as the most important piece of American protest art since World War II.

Julie Langan, director of the Department of Historic Resources, said this box doesn’t match 19th century descriptions of the time capsule, which was reported to be made of copper. Instead, the unearthed box is made of lead and smaller.

“We don’t know what’s in it and we’ll all find out at the same time,” Langan said before the box was opened.

Northam said he was proud to be the governor that saw the removal of Richmond’s major confederate monuments.

“To have statues and monuments that have been in our capital city, there to glorify the lost cause, there to glorify those who fought for the Confederacy, that fought for the institution of slavery, we don’t need those,” Northam said.

The construction of the Lee Memorial and reported placement of the time capsule occurred less than two decades after Reconstruction ended in Virginia. 

At the time, Black men served in the General Assembly. According to the writings of Luther Porter Jackson, a Black historian who worked in central Virginia during the early 20th century, there were eight Black members in 1887-1888. Many of them had been born into slavery.

Historian Christy S. Coleman, former president of the American Civil War Museum, says things were getting worse for Black Virginians.

“Most of the gains of Reconstruction were lost due to rabid attacks by white nationalists, coercion and manipulation of laws to preserve white power dynamics,” Coleman said. “The handful of Black legislators who remained in Virginia government weren’t enough to stop it.”

Coleman was also clear that regardless of emancipation and governmental representation for Black people, “many racist laws were still in effect.” From Reconstruction until the successes of the 1950s and ‘60s Civil Rights Movement, Virginia lawmakers enshrined racist practices like school segregation into state law.

The capsule was opened by a team of state conservators, comprising Kate Ridgway, Sue Donovan and Chelsea Blake, at the Department of Historical Preservation in front of a large crowd of press and state officials. 

The conservators used a range of tools, almost all specially made for different purposes - dental tools, tongue depressors and more. Ridgway says this protects the lead from damage.

“Really, any tool that we can get our hands on that looks like it will do the job,” Ridgway said. “We have such a specialized profession that nobody makes tools for us.”

Devon Henry, who directs statue and pedestal removal efforts, jokingly offered some of his power tools when it was apparent the process would take much longer than expected. The conservators politely declined.



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