Business owner who removed Confederate monuments speaks publicly for first time
RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Devon Henry and his team took down the Confederate monuments in Richmond when several contractors were afraid to touch them.
At the time, emotions were high following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. The pandemic was at its peak, and a statewide reckoning with its rebel past was knocking on Richmond’s front door.
He risked his life and career to help the city and state turn the page from its rebel past.
“Oh, I’ve been extremely deliberate about not doing interviews,” Henry said.
When asked about how it all started, he vividly remembers the day.
“The call came in on June 3 of 2020, and it was actually from the governor’s side. They said, ‘Hey, we want to take down this, you know, Lee, we can’t find anyone to do it. Can you do it?’”
That call was made a day before former Governor Ralph Northam made an announcement of his own.
“I am directing the Department of General Services to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee as soon as possible,” said Northam.
Removing the Robert E. Lee statue came with opposing views. As Henry attempted to assemble a team, he would learn that truth firsthand.
“Everyone said, ‘Hell no, Devon, I’m not touching that. No, no way are we supporting you. No way are we helping you.’ These were people that we worked with for years,” he said.
It was a sign, and an unexpected pause on one project would lead to several others.
“The next thing you know, we get a call; there’s an injunction. So, we had to stop everything,” says Henry.
Lee would be caught up in a legal battle that lasted more than a year. But that was not the case for the rest of the Confederate statues found all across the River City. The city was moving forward with its removal strategy after an announcement by Mayor Levar Stoney, but the city needed a contractor to get it done.
“They were doing the same exercise, making all these calls, and everybody was telling them no,” said Henry.
Demonstrators on the streets would not wait for symbols of the past to be taken down safely. On June 6, 2020, two days after Northam’s announcement, the William Carter Wickham statue in Monroe Park was torn down. June 9, the Christopher Columbus statue was ripped from its foundation, spray painted, set on fire and dumped in Byrd Park’s Fountain Lake. The very next day, June 10, the bronze Jefferson Davis statue came crashing down onto the cobblestone, almost 113 years to the day it was erected on June 3, 1907. A call was made with the city scrambling to find a contractor before several thousand pounds of bronze could fall onto a crowd instead of concrete.
“I guess they reached out to the state and say, ‘Hey, I think you guys got somebody. Who are you using?’ And they gave them our name, and so that’s kind of the back story that a lot of people don’t know,” said Henry.
His company getting the contract was scrutinized and came with controversy. Some believed he got it solely because he donated money to Stoney’s campaign in the past.
It led to an independent investigation by the Augusta County Commonwealth’s Attorney, which eventually resulted in the mayor being cleared of any wrongdoing. The investigation also showed the administration reached out to several contractors, but they “declined because they personally felt it was the wrong call or they didn’t want their company associated with the risk of the removal.”
“Everybody thinks that I just got this call and it was ‘here, take this contract,’ and it was absolutely not the case. So, I’m glad that they went through the process of folks telling them no,” said Henry.
When asked if he ever considered not taking the job without hesitation, he said, “Yeah.”
“First and foremost, it was the safety component. Not just for me, but my team. They have a family, as well as my family. You think about New Orleans, where the contractor had his car blown up. You think about what happened in Charlottesville. There’s a lot of emotion around these statues on both sides,” said Henry.
Those fears were realized.
“Some things I don’t talk about, but there were a ton of threats. The FBI involved, going to people’s houses. I’m always walking around with my head on a swivel. My daughter was going outside, and there was a car was at the end of the driveway, and she just refused to go outside, like she didn’t want to go outside anymore. They definitely tried to rattle us; they definitely tried to use bully tactics and all this other craziness to prevent this from happening,” said Henry.
The financial implications were front and center for a businessman who invested his life savings in becoming an entrepreneur.
“Secondly, I sacrificed my core work, my core business. Folks told me they were never going to work with us again. Folks said, ‘Devon, if you do this, this is not going to be favorable for you.’”
Henry says his decision to move forward was rooted in the understanding that this responsibility was bigger than him.
To understand Devon Henry and the task he would fulfill, you have to go back to a little town in North Carolina.
Henry is the oldest of seven kids; his mom had him at 16.
“She didn’t go to college. She started working at McDonald’s, taking orders to now, 30 years later, she owned her own McDonald’s. She is truly an inspiration in my life and probably one of the most singular inspirations in why I got into business,” he said.
Devon attended Norfolk State University on a full scholarship. In 2016, he was appointed to the Board of Visitors for the university and currently serves as the rector.
He became a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated at NSU. It’s where he met the late Congressman John Lewis, a member of the same organization.
“He would always tell me, ‘Devon, you getting in good trouble?’” Devon said. “And I would tell him ‘we’re doing things,’ and he would say, “You could do more.”
“So every time I do one of these removals, there is that thought of Good Trouble, and I always have that t-shirt on,” said Henry.
It was what he needed to take on this task in June of 2020.
Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving would provide deputies for safety.
“So we’re coming in off of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, and you can see the statue as you, as you approach it, and I’m just thinking, ‘this is your last day on that pedestal.’”
The crowds grew by the minute, history was unfolding in the former headquarters of the Confederacy, and Monument Avenue would never be the same.
“So, once we finally cut it and found out what was happening, a storm was coming in. It’s raining like crazy. It’s thunder in the background. The scene is set. Everybody is going crazy, and I’m telling you the crane the operator, let’s go, let’s get this thing up,” says Henry.
At first, it didn’t move, and a lightning strike became a risk with a crane in the sky. They tried again.
“Next thing you know, that thing starts coming up. The bells from the church start ringing. The moment couldn’t have been more script and just more perfect. With everything that was happening from the weather, to the people, to the energy, to us just figuring out, we just took down the first Confederate statue here in the former capital of the Confederacy.”
While many rejoiced in the rain, Henry had a more important celebration to attend.
“It was my daughter’s birthday. So, you know, after all of that, it went down. I got to go home and still had to be a dad.”
“We’ve done 23 of these throughout the Southeast. Some places we don’t really talk about. But Charlottesville was another place, which was a huge relief for a lot of the people that were there because of everything that they went through. The University of Virginia, they had their own; North Carolina, and they have some at the Virginia Military Institute,” says Henry.
The first time he’s ever said that publicly.
More than a year later, it was time to revisit the most prominent monument in mind and measure: Robert E. Lee.
“Everything is exactly where we thought it was going to be. We start making the cuts with saws, and I’m looking around at the crowd, and everybody is kind of getting antsy. I just get up, and I start doing a countdown, and the crowd gets into it. Then next thing you know, it starts coming up. It starts to rise it off the pedestal, and I just put my fist up. I knew it just meant so much more for so many people. So, the weight of that immediately took over, and it was extremely emotional. I just said, ‘take me down, I need to get down.’”
At that moment, he remembered a quote from John Mitchell, the editor of the Richmond Planet - a Black newspaper.
Shortly after the monument went up, Mitchell wrote quote, “He put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, he’ll be there to take it down.” He - being a Black man. “To realize that something that was said in the late 1800s was coming to fruition in 2021 and that I was the guy that he was speaking of. It’s extremely, extremely emotional.”
Devon Henry, the man who met the moment, did it with his head held high.
Now, Monument Avenue is just that, a single monument on a tree-lined Boulevard, and it belongs to Richmond’s Arthur Ashe.
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