Ever since his contractor company began removing Confederate statues in Richmond, Va. — controversial symbols of the South’s slave past — Devon Henry has got himself a weapon that never leaves him.
“Based on all the comments and the vitriol that people have spewed over these two years, I just refuse to let my guard down,” the African-American business owner told AFP.
“During one of the moves, we were driving down the road with the Confederate statue on the trailer and someone tried to run us off the road,” said Henry, who is 45.
Death threats, racist insults and intimidation have rained on him since July 1, 2020, when the contractor and his team unbolted their first statue, a monument to General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Jackson was a leading figure in pro-slavery Confederate forces during the Civil War of 1861-1865.
On this day in 2020 in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, Henry was wearing a bulletproof vest and felt himself teetering between pride and anxiety.
“You’re trying to figure out how to bring this thing down and you’re also looking over your back and making sure no one is trying to come in and hurt you and your crew,” he said.
When the 17-foot-tall (five-meter) statue was finally dislodged from its pedestal in the pouring rain, “to see thousands of people still around laughing, smiling and in some cases crying, you feel like for doing something quite special.”
“To me, the pullout was akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said.
– Hate and bigotry –
The African-American mayor, a Democrat, used his emergency powers in the summer of 2020 to push for the dismantling of controversial sculptures at a time when the country was experiencing an unprecedented outcry against racism over the death of George Floyd, a black man. asphyxiated by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“These monuments represented division, hatred, bigotry,” he said. “They were erected to intimidate and put in their place the black people who lived in Richmond.”
“This is not the Richmond of 2022,” the mayor said.
Erasing Confederate symbols, however, proved to be a rocky road for Stoney.
Before Henry agreed to take on this risky job, several other companies refused to do so. Some simply opposed the removal of the monuments, others feared for their safety, and still others said they feared their family members would remove them from their wills if they accepted the work.
Henry himself has been reluctant to say yes, fearing for his family’s safety after several violent events in recent years. In January 2016, a contractor hired to remove four Confederate statues in New Orleans backed out of the project after his car was set on fire.
“It was really hard to find other people interested in taking the job” after that attack, said Flozell Daniels Jr., president of the Louisiana Foundation, which worked with New Orleans officials to remove the statues.
“The contractors were told that if it was discovered that they were working with the city on this, they would not get any further contracts in the area. This is a significant financial threat,” he said. declared.
The monuments were finally removed in the spring of 2017, under police protection and at night, by masked workers equipped with bulletproof vests and wearing no visible logos that could have identified them, said Daniels, whose association also received death threats.
A few months later, in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, hundreds of ultra-right protesters marched against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. At the end of the rally, a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism activists, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
– Living a prophecy –
Four years later, Devon Henry proudly removed that same statue, along with three others, in Charlottesville.
His company has removed a total of 23 Confederate monuments in the southeastern United States, including 15 in Richmond, and is preparing to dismantle several others in various cities. Hundreds remain across the southern United States.
Despite the impact on Henry’s business, life and family, he says he has never regretted his choice.
“It goes back to 1890, when a black man said that it was black people who went up the monuments, and when it was time to come down, it would be a black man who would do it.
“So to be able to live out that prophecy is pretty rewarding,” Henry said, referring to the words of civil rights activist John Mitchell Jr., a native-born slave from Richmond.