"Forging Heavier Chains with Which to Be Bound"

The Lee Statue on Monument Avenue

In 1890, the district that would become Richmond’s Monument Avenue was
still largely rural. But changes began that year with the placing of
Monument Avenue’s first and largest statue. Antonin Mercié’s colossal
figure of Robert E. Lee on horseback towered over the wide avenue of the
newborn whites-only suburb of the former capital of the Confederacy. The
Lee monument was also the last Confederate sculpture on Monument Avenue
to be removed—in September 2021—amid a national movement against
racial injustice after the murder of George Floyd.[1]

But criticism of the monument was not new. Black reporters covered the monument campaign from the mid-1880s through to its unveiling, mostly expressing sharp criticism of the decision to commemorate Lee, though an 1887 piece from the Huntsville Gazette merely reported on some correspondence surrounding the cornerstone-laying and remarked that “Arrangements have been projected for making the laying of the cornerstone of the Lee monument an interesting event.”[2]

The unveiling of the actual monument on May 29, 1890, drew significant attention from Black journalists. The Richmond Planet became a nexus for Black commentary on the event from across the region, with the paper publishing or reprinting almost two dozen pieces on the statue-raising in May and June alone. For instance, the Planet reprinted a short article from the National Home Protector (Baltimore, MD, the precursor to the Afro-American):

The unveiling of the Lee monument adds another chapter to the history of the American nation that the next generation, both North and South, will no doubt read with regret. Though the general was guilty of treason against the United States government he bound himself under oath to support and fought bravely to forever establish and extend the accursed institution of human slavery; yet he possessed virtues which all fair-minded people appreciated. That he should have a monument erected in his memory by the people who followed him to defeat seems to be in the natural order of things.[3]

The article’s assessment of the situation was complex; Lee was to be admired for his virtues as an individual, even if his cause was unjust. The authors’ chief criticism was that the ceremony became a pretext for the display of an emblem of treason, the Confederate battle flag:

But when the unveiling of the monument is used as an opportunity to justify the southern people in rebelling against the U.S. government and to flaunt the Confederate flag in the faces of the loyal people of the nation the occasion calls for serious reflection.[4]

The great sin of the Lee monument in Richmond, then, was that it promoted the iconography of traitors. Not only that, it betrayed Lee’s own noblest qualities, especially his graciousness in defeat:

When General Lee furled his flag and presented his sword to his conquerors, he said secession is dead, and now, any attempt to resurrect the corpse of rebellion is not only an insult to the loyal people of the nation but is also casting a stigma on Gen. Lee’s record as commander of the Confederate Army.

According to the article, those “virtues which all fair-minded people appreciated” included honorable surrender. The South, in attempting to revitalize the “corpse of rebellion,” dishonored Lee’s own wisdom.[5]

The Richmond Planet also published their own vivid account of the events at the unveiling ceremony, writing “Thursday, 29th inst. was a memorable day for Richmond. Never has such a pageant assembled within its confines… no where [sic] in the South has a grander parade taken place.”[6] The article described all of the accoutrements brought out for “General Robert E. Lee and the cause for which he fought,” including rebel flags hung everywhere and “long lines of Confederate veterans” who performed once again the “rebel yell.”[7] “In no uncertain tones,” wrote the Planet about the white Southerners in attendance, it was revealed “that they still clung to theories which were presumed to be buried for all eternity.”[8] The rebel flags of the Lost Cause, “many of which ad been perforated by Union bullets,” were met with great enthusiasm—“Cheer after cheer rang out upon the air as they waved.”[9] The article also discussed the unfinished Richmond City Hall, which was “covered with one mammoth Confederate flag which extended the whole length of the building.”[10]

The Planet ended its report on a bleakly pessimistic note:

The South may revere the memory of its chieftains. It takes the wrong steps in so doing and proceeds to go too far in every similar celebration. It serves to retard its progress in the country and forges heavier chains with which to be bound. All is over.[11]

As another piece published in the Planet the same day put it, “This glorification of States Rights Doctrine [sic]—the right of secession, and the honoring of men who represented that cause, fosters in this Republic, the spirit of Rebellion and will ultimately result in handing down to generations unborn a legacy of treason and blood.”[12]

Two weeks later, the Planet published a new article about the unveiling, this time responding to a report from the Washington Bee, another Black newspaper. The Washington Bee piece (which was fully quoted by the Planet) commented on a rumor that “colored militia” had participated in the unveiling ceremony and festivities. The Washington Bee’s assessment of these Black veterans was harsh:

When will the Negroes learn sense? The idea of intelligent colored men making application to men to participate in a demonstration that was in honor of a man who attempted by force of arms to destroy a republic and to perpetuate slavery. It is a most damnable outrage on civilization; it is a mockery to the memory of those many thousand Union heroes that fell in defense of liberty.[13]

In a disturbing turn of phrase that highlights the intensity of the anger sparked by the report, the Washington Bee went on to declare

Every Negro that participated in those ceremonies ought to have a rope around his neck and swung to the tail of the horse upon which the dead ex-Confederate is mounted.[14]

This invective was particular spiteful in the context of ongoing anti-Black violence and lynchings in the South. The _Washington Bee _piece, as the Planet put it, “concluded by warmongering,”[15] insisting that the Lee statue dedication “should awaken the North. The South is just as ready to secede today as it was in '61. Let the North beware and abandon its cowardice and strike for liberty.”[16]

The Planet response to the Washington Bee piece, however, resolutely denied that any Black soldiers participated in the ceremonies at all:

Our contemporary is mistaken. No such application was made, and no Negro militia companies participated in the ceremonies. We trust that the correction will be made, and justice done the Afro-American militia of the Old Dominion.[17]

But although the Planet was eager to redeem Black veterans, they did not push back on the Washington Bee’s high passions against the “arch traitors’ ceremonies.”[18] This would seem to suggest tacit agreement with both the claim that the Lee monument signaled white Southerners’ readiness to rebel—and the obligation for the North to “abandon its cowardice and strike for liberty.”

Justin Seward


Chappell, Bill. “Massive Robert E. Lee Statue In Richmond, Va., Will be Removed.” National Public Radio, June 4, 2020,

Huntsville Gazette. “Lee Monument Cornerstone.” Sept. 24, 1887.

National Home Protector. “The Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” Richmond Planet, June 14, 1890, 3.

Richmond Planet. “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” May 31, 1890, 1.

Richmond Planet. “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” June 14, 1890, 2.

Richmond Planet. “What It Means.” May 31, 1890, 4.

  1. Chappell, Bill, “Massive Robert E. Lee Statue In Richmond, Va., Will Be Removed.” ↩︎

  2. Huntsville Gazette, “Lee Monument Cornerstone.” ↩︎

  3. National Home Protector, “The Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  4. National Home Protector, “The Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  5. National Home Protector, “The Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  6. Richmond Planet, “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” ↩︎

  7. Richmond Planet, “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” ↩︎

  8. Richmond Planet, “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” ↩︎

  9. Richmond Planet, “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” ↩︎

  10. Richmond Planet, “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” ↩︎

  11. Richmond Planet, “The Lee Monument Unveiling.” ↩︎

  12. Richmond Planet, “What It Means.” ↩︎

  13. In: Richmond Planet, “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  14. Richmond Planet, “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  15. Richmond Planet, “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  16. In: Richmond Planet, “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  17. Richmond Planet, “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎

  18. In: Richmond Planet, “The Surprising Thing in the Unveiling of the Lee Monument.” ↩︎