The statue of General Stonewall Jackson being removed from its pedestal, July 1, 2020, by Devon Henry’s team in Richmond, Virginia (AFP/Ryan M. Kelly)
Devon Henry has acquired a weapon and has not parted with it since his public works company began removing Confederate statues from Richmond, Virginia, two years ago, symbols of the slave past of the southern United States.
“With all the vitriolic comments people have made over the past two years, I refuse to let my guard down,” the 45-year-old black entrepreneur told AFP.
“One day we were driving with a Confederate statue in the back and someone tried to tip us into the ditch,” says Mr. Henry.
Intimidation tactics, death threats and racial slurs have been raining down since July 1, 2020, when the contractor and his team took down their first statue, that of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate figure in the Civil War ( 1861-1865), opposed to the abolition of slavery.
That day, in Richmond, the former capital of the secessionists, Devon Henry wore a bulletproof vest and oscillated between emotion and anxiety.
“You try to figure out how to unbolt this thing and you look over your shoulder to make sure no one comes around to hurt you and your team,” he recalls.
When the five-meter-tall statue was finally dislodged from its pedestal, in the pouring rain, “to see thousands of people still there, laughing, smiling and in some cases crying, gave me the feeling of having accomplished something something very special,” he continued.
“It was like seeing the Berlin Wall come down,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told AFP.
– Division, hatred and intolerance –
The elected African-American Democrat 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 after the death of the black American George Floyd, asphyxiated by a white police officer.
The statue of former Southern commander General Lee being unbolted from its pedestal on September 8, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia (AFP/Ryan M. Kelly)
“These monuments represented division, hatred and intolerance,” Stoney said. “They were erected 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 rocky road for Mr. Stoney.
Before Devon Henry agreed to tackle this risky task, the town hall faced numerous refusals from entrepreneurs.
Some were simply opposed to the removal of the monuments, others were afraid for their safety and “some said that we were going to strike them out of the family wills if they participated in the unbolting”, confides the city councilor.
Devon Henry himself hesitated to say yes for the safety of his family and having in mind several violent events that have occurred in recent years.
In January 2016, a contractor hired to remove four Confederate statues in New Orleans pulled out of the project after his car was destroyed in an arson attack.
“After that, it was extremely difficult to find other people willing to undertake this work,” recalls Flozell Daniels Jr., president of the Foundation for Louisiana responsible in partnership with the town hall for overseeing this dismantling.
“Some contractors were told that if it was discovered that they were working with the city on this file, they would not obtain any more contracts in the region. It is a serious financial threat”, he maintains.
The monuments ended up being removed in the spring of 2017, at night, by masked workers, equipped with bulletproof vests, without a visible logo to protect their anonymity and under strong police protection, details Mr. Daniels Jr., whose association also received death threats.
A few months later, in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, hundreds of members of the ultra-right demonstrated against the removal of a sculpture of Confederate General Robert Lee.
At the end of this rally, a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove into a crowd of anti-racist activists, killing a 32-year-old young woman, Heather Heyer.
– Prophecy –
Four years later, Devon Henry proudly laid down this statue and three others in Charlottesville. His company has removed a total of 23 Confederate monuments in the southeast of the country, including 15 in Richmond, and has yet to dismantle several in different cities. Hundreds remain in the American South.
The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee being transported on a truck after being removed from its pedestal, on July 10, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia (AFP/Ryan M. Kelly)
Despite the repercussions on his business, his life and his family, Mr. Henry says he never regretted his choice.
“In 1890, a black man said: it was black people who put these monuments up and when the time comes for them to be put down, it will be a black man who will do it. To be able to accomplish this prophecy is very gratifying,” he concluded, referring to the words of black civil rights activist John Mitchell Jr., originally from Richmond.