When White Contractors Wouldn't Remove Confederate Statues, a Black One Did

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tags: memorials, statues, Confederacy, Richmond, public history

Workers in bright yellow vests circled up in the morning chill. Some clutched cups of Starbucks coffee, a last comfort before beginning the hard work of dismantling a statue of Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill in the middle of an intersection.

As a small group of Confederate heritage defenders assembled nearby — at least one of them armed — city safety coordinator Miles Jones lectured the work crew on wearing hard hats and eye protection. And who, he asked, would be the site supervisor? A bearded man in Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Norfolk State University sweatshirt stepped forward.

“What’s your name, sir?” Jones asked.

“Devon Henry.”

“Devon Hen—” Jones began, then dropped his voice respectfully. “Oh, Mr. Henry. Of course.”

The name carries weight in Richmond these days. Over the past three years, as the former capital of the Confederacy has taken down more than a dozen monuments to the Lost Cause, Henry — who is Black — has overseen all the work.

He didn’t seek the job. He had never paid much attention to Civil War history. City and state officials said they turned to Team Henry Enterprises after a long list of bigger contractors — all White-owned — said they wanted no part of taking down Confederate statues.

For a Black man to step in carried enormous risk. Henry concealed the name of his company for a time and long shunned media interviews. He has endured death threats, seen employees walk away and been told by others in the industry that his future is ruined. He started wearing a bulletproof vest on job sites and got a permit to carry a concealed firearm for protection.

The drama interrupted Henry’s careful efforts to build his business. But after removing 24 monuments in Virginia and North Carolina, Henry, 45, has grown more comfortable with his role in enabling a historic reckoning with social injustice across the South. The threats haven’t let up; Henry has simply learned to live with them.

“My head’s in a different place now,” he said. “It’s like, I’m not scared to cross the street, but I’m always going to look both ways, right? So I’m not totally oblivious to who I am and what I’ve done, but I’m just not letting fear kind of drive what I do.”

Over and over, history-minded friends directed Henry to the words of John Mitchell Jr., the civil rights pioneer and editor of the Richmond Planet, a groundbreaking African American newspaper. In 1890, the year the state erected an enormous statue of Robert E. Lee on what would become Monument Avenue, Mitchell wrote about the resilience of the Black person in society.

“The Negro … put up the Lee monument,” Mitchell wrote, “and should the time come, will be there to take it down.”

Read entire article at Washington Post