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Watch now: The Valentine unveils Jefferson Davis statue in its '2020 state'

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Monument Avenue

06-01-1953 (cutline): The Jefferson Davis Memorial on Monument Avenue, Richmond, is topped by symbolic figure representing his vindication of treason charges.

The Valentine Museum on Wednesday unveiled the statue of Jefferson Davis that used to reside on Monument Avenue as a part of its “This is Richmond, Virginia” exhibition. On loan from the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the statue will be on display at The Valentine for six months.

“This is the great first step in beginning the conversation about ‘what’s next?’” said Valentine director Bill Martin. “What is next not only for the monuments and for Monument Avenue, but what is next for this conversation.”

Originally unveiled in 1907, the Jefferson Davis statue stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond for over 100 years. Along with Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson, the Davis statue was constructed during the Jim Crow era.

Edward Valentine, the artist and namesake of the museum, crafted the statue of Davis. Before his death, Davis came to Valentine’s studio, which is also on display, in anticipation of his monument.

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The Jefferson Davis statue erected on Monument Avenue in 1907 and pulled down in 2020 is on display at The Valentine.

“Valentine, as our first president, used his clout and his artistic skills to promote the Lost Cause, that effort after the Civil War to deny slavery as the central goal of the conflict and glorify Confederates as heroes,” Martin said.

On June 10, 2020, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down the statue.

Today, it is displayed intentionally in its “2020 state.” From falling, the head is dented and the arm is torn. Bubble gum pink latex paint is splattered down Davis’ body and on the podium, and flakes of a toilet paper noose are still stuck to the collar of the statue.

“This damage along with that pink paint that is decorating it really is that layer, that 2020 layer,” said Christina Vida, curator and project manager. “The Valentine has a lot of works by Edward Valentine; we do not have a lot of work that represent the social justice protest movement that took place in the summer of 2020. For us to have this additional layer on this work, I think, is truly important for the institution and is going to help us tell this much broader story about what has been going on in Richmond.”

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The statue, pulled down on June 10, 2020, is on loan from the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

The statue was installed Monday after being scanned and thoroughly documented. Notably, the statue is lying down like it was on the street in 2020.

“We thought this display technique was critical in making sure folks understand this object not as a man standing up looming over passersby on Monument Avenue, but as an object and storyteller for the social justice movement that took place in Richmond in 2020,” Vida said.

This is the first time the statue is on display in a museum after being in storage for two years.

“We are very excited and terrified,” Martin said. “I have always been honest. I think that the prospect of this is important for us. 2020 was an important moment for the city, and we hope to, in the next six months, try to capture that moment and all the feelings and all the events.”

Martin said the public’s opinion was a leading factor in deciding to display the statue.

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Museum director Bill Martin stands in the studio where Edward Valentine, the first president of the museum, created the statue.

“We know that about 80% of Richmonders, according to our survey, want these monuments in museums,” Martin said. “‘What does that mean?’ We are about to find out.”

To continue including Richmonders in the conversation, The Valentine has a feedback survey and comments box next to the exhibit. On Wednesdays, the museum is offering free admission “to give all Richmonders an opportunity to participate in this conversation.”

Co-curator Josh Epperson said he believes objects like the Davis statue belong in museums where people can consent to seeing them with the proper context.

“These objects are so powerful and were made for a very particular intention, for a group of people to try and convey their dominance over other free Americans,” he said. “These objects are very, very powerful, and they can be very painful for a lot of people. To have them off of public streets where you can’t consent, to into a public institution of education and learning, to me is only natural.”

Epperson said displaying them is important to convey the complete history of Richmond.

“I don’t think we should forget them,” he said. “I think if they stayed in storage, a child born today may not have any idea about how bad it really was. Someone could tell the story about ‘it never happened.’ It is possible; this is why objects in these places are so important.”

Conveying his personal experience, Epperson shared that for the Black community, the removal of these statues is impactful.

“These objects were not built for people like me,” he said. “They were built specifically to make people who look like me feel inferior to the people portrayed in these objects.”

“You could assume that these are just heroes on horses,” Epperson said. “If you have the context, the real story is illuminated.”

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