Removal of A.P. Hill statue points to new era in Richmond history
Two years ago, the city of Richmond decided it was time to stop displaying Confederate monuments, enabled by state legislation that overturned restrictions on the removal of “war memorials.”
Protesters had already begun toppling them during racial justice protests, and more than 20 monuments eventually came down. But the statue of A.P. Hill at Laburnum Avenue and Heritage Road was different, since the general's remains were believed to be inside.
The city needed a court order to move the remains to Fairview Cemetery in Hill’s native Culpeper County. The monument, the plan went, was to go to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, which was also given other monuments that had been taken down.
Then, a group of Hill's indirect descendants challenged the plan. They had no problem with the remains going to Fairview Cemetery, but said they had the right to determine where the monument went. They fought the decision in Richmond City Circuit Court, and a Richmond judge ultimately sided with the city last week.
On Monday, work crews assembled to remove a statue of A.P. Hill — the last Confederate monument owned by the city of Richmond — and disinter his remains, which had been moved there in the late 1800s when the statue was installed.
“Let’s take our time, go easy and slow. There’s no need to rush,” said Bob Steidel, deputy chief administrative officer for public utilities, as his crew worked to remove Hill from the pedestal he sat atop for more than a century.
Nearby, a few dozen students from the Imago Dei Neighborhood School gathered to watch.
For Alana Smith, the school’s admissions director and communications liaison, it was an opportunity for a hard conversation.
“This was a beautiful opportunity to say, ‘Hey, something amazing is happening, let's talk about it.’”
The children were counting aloud: “21! 22! 23! 24!”
“How long do you think it’s going to take?” another administrator asked.
Sara Kennedy, the school’s executive director, said she wasn’t sure if the children were counting to see how long it would take or if it was a clever move by a teacher to keep them occupied in the cold.
John Hill, one of Hill’s descendants who sued over the city’s plan to remove the statue, watched Monday as the monument was removed. He said none of the city’s Confederate monuments should have been taken down.
“It’s his headstone, I feel like anybody’s else’s headstone with their family name, you don’t want to see that come down,” Hill, a 33-year-old Ohio steel worker, said to a group of reporters.
But Hill’s body had been moved twice before: He was killed by Union troops near Petersburg on April 2, 1865, and a relative and fellow officer tried to have Hill buried in Hollywood Cemetery.
But the Union Army’s advance toward the Confederate capital thwarted that plan. Historian James Robertson wrote that parts of downtown Richmond were in flames, and crossing the James River was impossible as people fled south. The next day was unseasonably warm and human remains wouldn’t keep in the Virginia spring.
The four burials of A.P. Hill
“We are here in Hollywood Cemetery, because this is the second burial location for General Ambrose Powell Hill,” Christina Vida, the Elise H. Wright curator of general collections at The Valentine museum, told VPM News this fall.
Vida pointed to hillside memorials — covered in crosses, obelisks, columns — where the former general was buried.
“You're not going to start to see the large figural monuments in Richmond after the Civil War really until the Robert E. Lee monument is unveiled in 1890,” Vida said
Hill’s grave initially had no marker at all, Vida said, which prompted former soldiers to want him re-buried at another location. So, Hill’s body was moved, again, and the general’s new resting place would symbolize a greater political movement. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Confederate monuments were erected to help sympathizers justify the Civil War.
“They use monuments as part of this misinformation campaign to really twist the public's understanding and perception of the cause for the Civil War, which was, of course, slavery,” Vida said.
Richmond’s Confederate monuments became a symbol of the city, a reminder of institutionalized racism and systemic inequalities that have persisted.
In 1988 —nearly 100 years after Hill’s monument was erected in 1892 — Monroe Harris moved to Richmond.
Harris is now president of the board at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia — and the museum’s acting director. He remembers taking a tour of the city after being picked up from the airport. The first stop at Monument Avenue left him aghast, he said.
“First of all, being African American and someone taking you to see some Confederate generals … it was mind blowing, No. 1,” Harris said during a Monday phone interview. “No. 2, we had never seen monuments that large.”
The city of Richmond gave the Black History Museum all the monuments it removed in 2020 and plans to transfer the Hill monument there, too. Harris said the museum is in the process of deciding what happens next and is gathering public comments and input.
“We take the disposition of these artifacts very seriously,” he said. “And we hopefully will do the best thing to hopefully put them in a context that is acceptable and thoughtful for everybody.”
As laborers worked Monday to remove the Hill monument, the smell of metal wafted into the crowd. After cutting a single bolt, a crane smoothly moved the statue onto a nearby flatbed truck. Workers laid the statue down on tires.
After 130 years of display, including two when the city was trying to remove the statue, Richmond’s last city-owned monument to the Confederacy came down in hours.
Although the statue's removal could be seen as an end to this chapter in history, Richmond isn’t exactly done with “lost-cause” statues.
Smith, the school administrator, continued watching with her students, who were thinking ahead.
“They have lots of good questions,” she said. “Some of them are asking ‘Now that the statue’s come down, what can we put up instead?’”
That’s a question the city is working on, too.
The ultimate fate of the A.P. Hill statue — and others like it — is still being decided. Museum curators are seeking community input on that now, looking toward a new chapter in history.
“Richmond is a wonderful place to live,” said Harris, of the Black History Museum. “It's not perfect. But I think one positive step was taking those monuments down — and that goes a long way.”