It is obvious that the Lee statue symbolizes the values of the Confederate South, but few people are aware that its original purpose was to block the development of a biracial workers’ movement, a vision for a new Richmond, a new Virginia, and a new South. The statue was a monumental symbol created to overshadow a social movement, blunt its course, and attempt to erase its history.
In spring 1886, the newly created Workingmen’s Reform Party gained control of Richmond’s government. The party, created by the local chapter of a national organization called the “Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor,” had run a biracial slate of candidates for city council.
Key to their agenda was the construction of a new city hall to replace the one that had been burned to the ground—along with most of the city’s central business district—by the fleeing Confederate government in April 1865. Richmond had made do with a series of temporary facilities over the ensuing twenty years, but advocates of a “New South” argued that the region’s major industrial city needed a proper city hall.
While the incumbent city government wanted to select the lowest bidder, the Knights of Labor urged that the new city hall be built by local workers employed directly by the city, working an eight hour day at union wages. It also urged that all jobs on the project, including the most skilled, be open to Black workers.
In October 1886, the Richmond Knights of Labor hosted the organization’s national convention, bringing almost 1,000 delegates to the city. While a lot happened at the convention, even more happened in the community as local activists, both Black and white, joined with visiting delegates to challenge the city’s hardening Jim Crow rules. White delegates from Brooklyn, New York, refused to stay at a segregated hotel and moved into African American boarding houses.
The famed Richmond Theater was the focus of a remarkable protest, where Black and white Knights of Labor members sat together in the orchestra section during a performance of “Hamlet.” Mainstream local newspapers were outraged, but Black and labor newspapers hailed the labor organization, whose national leader opened the convention saying, “We practice what we preach.”
Democrats and Republicans continued in the efforts to divide the white and Black bases of the labor movement. When the Workingmen’s Reform Party put forward William Mullen, a local Knights of Labor, as a candidate for Congress, whispered stories about Mullen’s racial loyalties were picked up and trumpeted in the newspapers of the day.
It was within this context that Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Lee announced the state’s plans to build a gigantic statue of his uncle, Robert E. Lee, consecrating Monument Avenue as an homage to “The Lost Cause” and white solidarity. The tide had turned, and two weeks before the election, Mullen withdrew and the Workingmen’s Reform Party imploded.