As communities and organizations across the U.S. continue to celebrate Black History Month, two statues which grace Richmond’s historic thoroughfares stand in stark contrast to dozens of controversial Confederate sculptures showcasing white Civil War heroes.
One bronze statue pays tribute to Virginia-born, African-American tennis icon Arthur Ashe — erected along the city’s historic Monument Avenue more than two decades ago — but not before many residents voiced their discontent. The most recent addition that bears witness to the contributions of the nation’s Black citizens reveals a hoodie-garbed Black man with dreadlocks and Nikes perched atop a horse.
The “very different work of art” created by Nigerian-American portrait painter Kehinde Wiley serves as a permanent installment at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) on the newly named North Arthur Ashe Boulevard which intersects Monument Avenue, unveiled before a crowd of supporters that included Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last December.
“In these toxic times, art can help us transform and give us a sense of purpose,” Wilde, 42, said in a statement prior to his famed “Rumors of War” unveiling.
“This story begins with my seeing the Confederate monuments,” he said. “What does it feel like if you are Black and walking beneath this? We come from a beautiful, fractured situation. Let’s take these fractured pieces and put them back together.”
According to Richmond’s history, Monument Avenue, where the majority of Civil War statues now stand, traces its origins to 1870 when efforts began in search of a fitting memorial to General Robert E. Lee following his death. Richmond’s leaders had also sought to erect statues for three Virginians who had helped defend the city during the war. Nearly two decades later, city plans showed the proposed site, which consisted of a circle of land, just past the end of West Franklin Street, in a premier residential avenue.
VMFA writes that Richmond’s newest Black sculpture, previously unveiled in Times Square on September 27, 2019 in New York City, “commemorates African American youth lost to the social and political battles being waged throughout our nation.”
During the unveiling ceremony in Richmond, Stoney said, “It’s taken more than 100 years, but the rest of [our] residents finally have a monument of a man on a horse who looks more like them.”
Two other Black statues commemorating the legacies of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — best known for tap dancing his way into history with childhood star Shirley Temple in the 1930s — and entrepreneur Maggie Lena Walker, grace the skyline in Richmond’s bustling historic Jackson Ward communities.