Racial Tensions: Those Removing Confederate Statues Face Death Threats

A contractor responsible for storing symbols of the southern United States’ slave-holding past testifies to its difficulties.

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The equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee has come off its pedestal in Richmond, Virginia. It was September 8, 2021.

AFP

Devon Henry, who owns a company tasked with removing controversial monuments, hugs his mother after the operation.

Devon Henry, who owns a company tasked with removing controversial monuments, hugs his mother after the operation.

Getty Images via AFP

Another statue of General Lee, here in Charlottesville, Virginia, on his way to the warehouse.  It was July 10, 2021.

Another statue of General Lee, here in Charlottesville, Virginia, on his way to the warehouse. It was July 10, 2021.

AFP

Devon Henry acquired a gun and hasn’t gotten rid of it since his public works company began removing Confederate statues from Richmond, Va., two years ago, symbols of the southern United States’ slaveholding past.

“With all the scathing comments people have made over the last two years, I refuse to let my guard down,” the 45-year-old black businessman told AFP. “One day we were driving with a Confederate statue on our back and someone tried to push us into the ditch,” says Henry.

Intimidation tactics, death threats and racial slurs have been pouring in since July 1, 2020, when the contractor and his team tore down their first statue, that of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate figure in the Civil War (1861-1865). ), against the abolition of slavery. That day, in Richmond, the former capital of the Secessionists, Devon Henry was wearing a bulletproof vest and vacillating between emotion and anxiety.

“You try to figure out how to unlock this thing and look over your shoulder to make sure no one shows up to hurt you and your team,” he recalls. When the five-meter-tall statue was finally dislodged from its plinth, under the torrential rain, “seeing thousands of people still standing there, laughing, smiling and in some cases crying, gave me the feeling that I had accomplished something very special,” he said. continued.

“It was like watching the Berlin Wall come down,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told AFP.

“Division, Hate and Intolerance”

The African-American Democrat-elect used his emergency powers in the summer of 2020 to push for the dismantling of these controversial sculptures at a time when the country was experiencing an unprecedented outcry against racism following the death of black American George Floyd, asphyxiated by a police officer. white. “These monuments represented division, hatred and intolerance,” Stoney said. “They were built to intimidate and belittle the black residents of Richmond” and “this is not the Richmond of 2022,” he adds.

The erasure of Confederate iconography, however, has been a rough road for Stoney. Before Devon Henry agreed to take on this risky task, the city faced numerous refusals from business owners. Some simply opposed the removal of the monuments, others feared for their safety and “some said we were going to rip them out of the family wills if they participated in the unblocking”, confides the councilor. Devon Henry himself was hesitant to say yes for the safety of his family and bearing in mind several violent events that had taken place in recent years.

serious financial threat

In January 2016, a contractor hired to remove four Confederate statues in New Orleans backed out of the project after his car was destroyed in an arson attack. “After that, it was extremely difficult to find other people who wanted to do this work,” recalls Flozell Daniels Jr., president of the Louisiana Foundation responsible in partnership with the city for overseeing this decommissioning. “Some contractors were told that if they found out they were working with the city on this dossier, they wouldn’t get any more contracts in the region. It is a serious financial threat,” he said.

The monuments were eventually removed in the spring of 2017, at night, by masked workers, equipped with bulletproof vests, with no visible logo to protect their anonymity and under heavy police protection, details Daniels Jr., whose association also received death threats.

A few months later, in August 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, hundreds of far-right members protested the removal of a sculpture of Confederate General Robert Lee. At the end of this rally, a neo-Nazi sympathizer ran over a crowd of anti-racist activists, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Hundreds remaining

Four years later, Devon Henry proudly placed this statue and three others in Charlottesville. His company has removed a total of 23 Confederate monuments in the south east of the country, including 15 in Richmond, and has not yet dismantled several in different cities. Hundreds remain in the American South.

Despite the repercussions on his business, his life and his family, Henry says he has never regretted his choice. “In 1890, a Negro said: It was the Negroes who erected these monuments and when the time comes for them to be torn down, it will be a Negro who will do it. Being able to fulfill that prophecy is very gratifying,” he concluded, referring to the words of black civil rights activist John Mitchell Jr., a native of Richmond.

(AFP)

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