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'Never be seen again': Where Confederate statues go after being taken from public spaces

NBC News logo NBC News 9/21/2020 Erik Ortiz
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After the death of George Floyd in late May, more than 130 Confederate statues and tributes to divisive historical figures have come down in a flurry of protests, acts of vandalism and government decrees.

But no matter how and why the monuments were removed, most communities remain stuck in a common struggle: what to do with them.

A review by NBC News of monuments that were ripped down or are slated to be pulled from public spaces found that most governments and agencies with oversight have no clear road map for what will happen next and have placed the statues and markers into storage for the foreseeable future.

In only about 35 of the cases were the monuments transported to new homes or were awaiting to be moved or for a location or owner to be determined. Most of those monuments were delivered to Confederate cemeteries or accepted by museums, although a handful were headed for private properties or to local historical societies and organizations with ties to the statues. One was sent to a historic battlefield in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

At least three vandalized statues — one of an early 1900s politician in Nashville, Tennessee, and two at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, that historians say were not actual symbols of white supremacy — were expected to be repaired and returned to their original sites, local officials said.

An apparently lackluster response toward the monuments doesn't surprise Sarah Beetham, the chair of liberal arts and an assistant professor of art history at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She said some communities must wrestle with whether a statue is worth preserving if it is only going to be relegated to storage or was already damaged or weather-worn.

"It's highly likely many of them will never be seen again," she said.

In addition, Beetham said, many of the monuments weigh several tons and require cranes to haul them, so the cost of moving them could be hefty for interested parties.

"Once you get them down on the ground and realize how big they are, you have a real problem on your hands," she said. "Even if a museum has the space, they have to ask: 'Will they crack the floorboards? Will there even be a way to move them inside?'"

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The city of Newport News, Virginia, where a Confederate monument more than a century old will be taken down in the coming days, had reached out to five organizations, including local historical societies and museums, in the hope that one would want it.

But one museum responded and said it was too big, city spokeswoman Kim Lee said. The monument, which is owned by the city, will have to go into storage.

"We thought there might be interest," she said. "So we're certainly willing to entertain offers and listen to anyone who wants it."

The nearby city of Norfolk also had no takers for its Confederate statue, known as "Johnny Reb," and officials said it would likely be installed at a local cemetery this fall.

In July, a new law in Virginia went into effect that requires 30 days' public notice before a government body can vote to remove a Confederate war memorial. If a vote is successful, officials have another 30 days to offer the memorial to a museum, a historical society, a government or a military battlefield.

a statue of a man riding a horse in front of a building: Image: J.E.B. Stuart statue (Steve Helber / AP file) © Steve Helber Image: J.E.B. Stuart statue (Steve Helber / AP file)

The legislation gives local governments more power to decide whether to remove Confederate statues from public property. Those opposed to removing monuments argue that they affirm American history and consider them works of art, and they say scrubbing them from view would only eradicate a sense of heritage and promote censorship.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, nearly 1,800 Confederate symbols are displayed on public lands. But since the killing of Floyd, a Black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police, almost 100 Confederate statues and symbols have been relocated or removed, while schools and other places have been renamed.

The sweeping changes are spurred by a larger demand for the nation to confront a long history of racism and oppression.

Virginia's capital, Richmond, became a battleground in the monument debate after Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, announced in June that the prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would be taken down, along with four other statues depicting Confederate figures, from a 2-mile stretch of Monument Avenue.

The monuments, the focus of intense protests, became gathering places where demonstrators clashed with police and rallied in the name of Floyd and others who have died in police encounters.

A lawsuit brought by several Monument Avenue property owners has blocked the Lee statue's removal as the case continues through the courts next month. But that hasn't stopped activists from using the graffitied statue as a backdrop to project images of Floyd, as well as Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who died in July.

Image: (Jay Paul / Reuters) © Jay Paul Image: (Jay Paul / Reuters)

Some government agencies are using public task forces to determine what should happen to contentious monuments.

At the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul, protesters in June used a rope to topple a nearly 90-year-old statue of Christopher Columbus — one of about 30 of the Italian explorer across the country that were either vandalized or removed in support of Indigenous people.

The Columbus statue's removal has forced a discussion of what monuments and artwork are most appropriate for the capital grounds, and it could be four to six more months before a task force decides the next steps, said Paul Mandell, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which has oversight of the property.

"It's not 1492 anymore, and we know a lot of things about Columbus now that wouldn't merit him getting placed here," Mandell said.

For now, he said, Columbus remains in storage.

In Boston, the city's art commission is reviewing public testimony to help determine what to do with its Columbus statue, which is in storage after vandals decapitated it in June. Officials are looking at the possibility of restoring its head and neck, as was done after a similar beheading in 2006, although they continue to solicit public input before a formal decision is issued.

The expedited removal of monuments, particularly on courthouse and government grounds, is a beneficial step toward the nation's healing, said Geoff Ward, a professor of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis who has mapped out visual symbols of racism.

But he worries that necessary conversations about racial injustice that people of color are asking for in their communities are failing to happen each time a statue is taken down.

"This is a familiar U.S. scenario," Ward said, "seeking to quickly move on and declare matters settled rather than dealing with issues and really processing traumas."

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