Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

The statue of Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia covered in graffiti (Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr)

From Philadelphia to Bristol, long-debated monuments that commemorate Confederate figures and imperialist leaders are being toppled by protestors or removed by local authorities. The push to remove these dubious statues worldwide is simultaneous to historic protests against racial inequality and police brutality against Black people.

The recent events mark a sea change after decades of advocacy to remove these racist monuments. The following is a comprehensive, although not exhaustive, roundup of the memorials that have been taken down in Europe and the United States in just the past week.

Alabama

In Birmingham, Alabama, protestors took down the statute of Charles Linn, a Confederate Navy captain, and attempted to destroy a nearby obelisk monument to Confederate soldiers and sailors. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin then stepped with an order to remove the statue on June 3.

In the city of Mobile, the local government removed a statue of Confederate navy officer Raphael Semmes days after it was tagged by protesters.

Belgium

This morning, June 9, Antwerp authorities removed a statue of the country’s monarch Leopold II from the city’s Ekeren district and transferred it to the Middelheim Museum, where it will be stored. The charred statute was set on fire last week at the hands of protesters.

King Leopold II was responsible for the genocide of millions of Congolese people under his colonial rule. He exploited the territory’s resources for his personal gain while enacting brutal practices like forced labor, child colonies, imprisonment and hostage-taking, mutilation, and other sadistic punishments.

In 2018, local authorities added a plaque to the statue to provide historical context about Leopold II’s colonial crimes.

In another incident, protests defaced a bust of the former Belgian king in the city of Ghent with red paint and covered its head with a cloth that said, “I can’t breathe.”

Boston

Protesters chopped off the head of a Christopher Columbus statue in Boston’s North End on the morning of June 10. The statue was defaced with red paint earlier this week. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said that the statue will put in storage as discussions about the “historic meaning” of the incident and the future of the monument commence.

Kentucky

The city of Louisville removed a 1913 statue of Confederate soldier John B. Castleman on June 8.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said last week that a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, should be removed from the Kentucky Capitol.

“I don’t think another child should come into this Capitol and look up at a statue of someone who supported slavery,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky in Lexington announced that it will remove a controversial mural on its campus that students have deemed racist for its depictions of Black and Native American people.

Mississippi

In Oxford, Mississippi, protesters sprayed the phrase “spiritual genocide” and stamped blood-red handprints on a Confederate monument at the University of Mississippi.

North Carolina

On May 31, protesters set a fire in Fayetteville’s Market House, a site where slave auctions were held.

In Raleigh, demonstrators tagged a monument to the soldiers of the Confederate States of America with graffiti.

In Charleston, South Carolina protesters spraypainted a Confederate statue in Charleston with phrases like “BLM” and “traitors.”

Pennsylvania

On June 3, Philadelphia officials removed the statue of the city’s former mayor and police commissioner, Frank Rizzo. As police commissioner between 1968–71, Rizzo enacted a “tough on crime” policy that encouraged police brutality against the city’s Black residents. And as mayor from 1972–80, he fought against desegregation, blocked public housing programs, and called on his constituents to “vote white.”

“The statue represented bigotry, hatred and oppression for too many people, for too long,” said Philadelphia’s current mayor, Jim Kenney, who signed an executive order to remove the statue. Kenney added that the city is currently considering whether to donate or relocate the statute, “or otherwise dispose of it.”

On June 7, the city painted over a mural of Rizzo in Philadelphia’s Italian Market neighborhood. A few days earlier, Mural Arts Philadelphia, a body that was charged with maintaining the monument, announced that will “cease all involvement with the mural.”

United Kingdom

On Sunday, June 7, protesters in Bristol tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth, rolled it down the streets, and pushed it into the water. Before that, one protester knelt down on the removed statue’s neck for eight minutes, symbolically recreating the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Later, Bristol-born street artist Banksy suggested an alternative installation atop the now-empty plinth of the Colston statute. “Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t,” he posted on Instagram earlier today together with a stencil that illustrates his idea.

“We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”

Local officials in Oxford joined calls to remove a statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College after a large Black Lives Matter rally across the city on June 9.

Oxford students have been demanding the removal of the monument since 2016, but the university remained defiant, agreeing only to modify the statute to “draw attention to this history [and] do justice to the complexity of the debate.”

According to the Guardian, donors warned the university that it might lose about £100 million ($127 million) in gifts if it removes the statue. But university representatives claim that their decision was not driven by financial considerations.

Virginia

Richmond, the former capital city of the Confederacy, witnessed several actions against Confederate statues and sites.

On June 6, a group of protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate general Williams Carter Wickham in the city’s Monroe Park.

Elsewhere, protesters defaced statues of Confederate soldiers Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and Jefferson Davis. Lee’s statute was tagged with “No More White Supremacy,” “Blood On Your Hands,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced plans to remove the statue of Lee from Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

“That statue has been there for a long time. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. So we’re taking it down,” Northam said in a press conference.

In April, Northam signed a bill that allows the state’s localities to remove Confederate monuments. The bill was supposed to go into effect on July 1, but the current Black Lives Matter protests urged cities to act earlier.

On May 31, protesters set the headquarters of the Daughters of the Confederacy memorial site on fire. The site is dedicated to the “women of the Confederate States of America” for their “self-sacrifice,” and “exemplary faith in never changing principles,” among other things.

According to reports, some protesters managed to cause damage to Stonewall Jackson memorabilia inside the building before the firefighters arrived at the site.

Kehinde Wiley, “Rumors of War” (2019) (photo by Jasmine Weber for Hyperallergic)

At the nearby Virginia Museum of Fine Arts stands Kehinde Wiley’s sculpture “Rumors of War” (2019). The sculpture, featuring a cotemporary Black American on a horse, is the artist’s response to the city’s plethora of Confederate monuments. Wiley first unveiled the sculpture in Times Square in New York in September of 2019.

The city of Alexandria seized the moment to realize a 2016 plan to remove the statue of a Confederate soldier. The 131-year-old statue was removed on June 2.

On June 9, protesters tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus in Richmond’s Byrd Park, set it on fire while wrapped with an American flag, dragged it to a nearby lake, and plunged it into the water.

Editor’s note 6/10/2020 4:00pm EDT: This article has been updated to include new events in Boston, Oxford, and Richmond that occurred after its original publication on June 9.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

11 replies on “Toppled and Defaced Racist Monuments in 15 Cities, From Richmond to Bristol”

  1. They should never remove these statues completely. They should be taken off their pedestals and a plaque put up explaining their ‘dark past’. That way you’re not erasing the past but re-evaluating it. No?

    1. I quite like that idea – and/or the idea of putting the statues in museums where the whole context can be exhibited.

      I was interested to learn, for ex., that the Colston statue wasn’t put up until over a hundred years after his death. And it was erected to garner support for a deliberately anti-socialist, status quo conservatism that suddenly found itself in need of some tradition to justify its position. In other words – and contrary to the usual line we’re fed – it’s not the pulling down that’s ideological (as though ‘history’ was ever neutral) but the erection of statues. What a surprise!

      1. Museums actually don’t want them. Most of the pro-Confederacy statues were erected in the 20th century by the Daughters of the Confederacy as a reaction to civil rights. None of them have historical value.

        1. But that IS their historical value. Or did you mean that they have no ART historical value?

    2. In Moscow there is Muzeon Park of Arts, aka “Fallen Monument Park” that is the graveyard of all the Soviet “hero” statues from Stalin to Lenin. It’s kind of amazing. Seeing them all together like that has quite an impact. Societies change and the old ways dies.

    3. Agreed. The statues should not be removed but plaques, local historians, actors, etc. should explain their deeds. Like Germany teaches about its past, so no school child is ignorant and no one ever repeats this horror. Other anti Semitic or colonizer countries/religious institutions got away….

  2. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said last week that a statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, should be removed from the Kentucky Capitol.

    Just a reminder that Kentucky wasn’t a part of the Confederacy, and that they actually requested Union help to fight off a Confederate invasion.

    Given that, I think it’s clear why they would erect a statue to Jefferson Davis.

  3. Funny but the only answer in recorded history to the White Man’s later rapacious global identity-abusing marauding is …the White Man’s identity blind universalist liberal democracy model.
    Blind to all identities: of race, place, religion and gender.
    So the “civilisation” which behaved so badly [and still does in pockets] is the same that eventually emerged with the answer.
    And the other uncomfortable irony today is that many non-Western countries are the main culprits in illiberal behaviour, including identity abuse.

    1. Colonizers went to these countries because they wanted their riches. If the colonizers had been even a little fair, a little compassionate, shown some humanity, no one would throw them out. They came to loot and, not content, chose to humiliate and devastate the residents. Pity!
      Colonial powers typically enrich and protect some small group and teach them to manage any mayhem/loot. ALL countries have some disgruntled group that can be chosen for this or else a king can be created, like the Shah of Iran, from commoners. Dictators are thus propped up by erstwhile colonizers who want their minerals, oil, etc. Several European countries specialize in banking the dictators’ ill gotten gains and helping the colonizers take money out. Others collected taxes even after leaving for having brought ‘civilization’ or for freeing the slaves they owned, e.g France and Haiti. Or fought wars to dope a country, China, with opium, as they did not want to pay silver for Chinese goods or basically to humiliate it.

    2. ‘White Man’s identity blind universalist liberal democracy’ was neither liberal nor universal. Various groups had to fight hard and fight repeatedly to get any democracy or even its semblance, e.g. the vote, services, pay, even the right to drive, sit down in public places, etc., etc.

Comments are closed.