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Workers uncover another Lost Cause time capsule in Richmond

Person carries stone box
A worker carries the time capsule removed for the former site of the Jefferson Davis monument. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/Style Weekly)

Construction crews working to remove Richmond’s Confederate monuments have unearthed a metal box at the former site of the Jefferson Davis monument. It’s a time capsule which, according to historical reports, was intended for a Confederate temple in the city’s Monroe Park.

Christina Vida, curator at the Valentine Museum, says the box is much older than the Jefferson Davis monument being removed now, which was completed in 1907.

“This box actually was previously buried in a cornerstone in Monroe Park on July 2, 1896,” Vida said. She’s speaking based on newspaper reports from the time that the Valentine has reviewed, particularly from the Richmond Dispatch.

In fact, Vida says, the box was intended to sit under a never-built temple dedicated to Davis, the former president of the Confederacy and an ardent defender of white supremacy.

“It was going to be a foot taller than the temple to [Union Commanding General] Grant in New York, because that’s how we do things,” Vida said.

The monument was being planned largely by former Confederate men, many of whom were highly involved Freemasons. They organized the 1896 Masonic cornerstone ceremony, which was part of fundraising efforts for the overall structure. But initiative for the project shifted shortly afterwards to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who Vida says were still gaining notoriety in the area at the time.

So, after a change in location and much more fundraising, the cornerstone was unearthed and moved in April 1907 to Monument Avenue, where it sat until today.

The contents of the box itself were also well documented. Many reflect the Masonic makeup of the original planners - membership cards and a local Masonic directory for instance. There are also a handful of local organizations represented.

But reports also show there’s Confederate memorabilia from around the South, like a photo of a Confederate monument in the Mississippi state capitol.

“This is not just a local box, this is meant to be something that really represented the Confederacy,” Vida said. She continues that ceremonies like the cornerstone laying in Monroe Park were essential to the myth-building of the Lost Cause.

Former Confederates, pardoned for treason in the wake of the Civil War, worked to paint a sympathetic picture of Confederate leaders including Davis as primarily motivated by an expanding U.S. federal government. Davis, however, passionately defended white supremacy on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1860.

“The condition of slavery with us is, in a word Mr. President [of the Senate], nothing but a form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves,” he said. “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from cradle to grave, our government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.”

The box is being held by the City of Richmond, but will be transferred to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. According to a city council resolution passed last year, the museum receives ownership of each of the city’s confederate monuments and their constituent parts.

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