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An Emancipation Statue Debuts In Virginia Two Weeks After Robert E. Lee Was Removed

The new Emancipation and Freedom Monument in Richmon, Va., features two 12-foot bronze statues of a man and woman holding an infant who have been newly freed from slavery.
The new Emancipation and Freedom Monument in Richmon, Va., features two 12-foot bronze statues of a man and woman holding an infant who have been newly freed from slavery.

Two weeks after the 6o-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee was removed in Richmond, Va., the former Confederate capital city has become home to a new statue, this one commemorating the abolition of slavery.

The Emancipation and Freedom Monument — designed by Thomas Jay Warren, a sculptor based in Oregon — was unveiled Wednesday on Brown's Island on the James River in downtown Richmond, about 2 miles from where the Lee statue once stood.

It consists of two 12-foot bronze statues of a man and a woman holding an infant who have been newly freed from slavery. The statue's pedestal includes the names, images and stories of 10 Virginians who contributed to the struggle for freedom before and after emancipation, including Dred Scott, whose lawsuit led to the Supreme Court decision that persons of African descent were not U.S. citizens; Nat Turner, who led a successful slave rebellion; and educator Lucy Simms.

"It really captured what we were trying to do in that the figures capture the emotion of emancipation, but the people on the base capture who else was involved of the process of fighting against slavery, leading to emancipation, and fighting for freedom and equality going forward," state Sen. Jennifer McClellan told NPR.

McClellan, who is head of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission, which took the lead on commissioning the statue, has been working to build the monument since 2011.

The monument was originally supposed to be revealed in 2019 as part of the 400th anniversary of 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia.

But the fact that the monument will now make its debut after some of the largest Confederate statues in Richmond of Lee and other generals are gone is a moment of "poetic justice," McClellan says.

"This monument has always represented an important part of healing," McClellan said. "Having that happen after COVID, after the George Floyd murder and the reckoning with racial inequity and after the monuments started coming down, it's much more healing than it would have been in 2019."

The monument is also making history of its own. According to McClellan, it's the first state-funded statue celebrating emancipation in the U.S. She adds that Virginia becoming the state to first make it happen is significant in itself.

"I think it's so appropriate that it's here. ... Virginia was the birthplace of Western democracy, but it was also the birthplace of slavery and all of the horrors that came with it," she said. "Richmond has been at the heart of that."

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam attended the unveiling on Wednesday.

"Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value ... these statues, they're symbols, too," Northam said. "They're symbols of a Virginia that is reckoning with ugliness and inequality ... a Virginia that tells the truth of our past so we can build a better future together."

"These statues are symbols of hope and freedom and the enduring will to fight for that freedom."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.