RICHMOND, Va. — Now that an iconic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has been taken down from its perch above Richmond’s Monument Avenue, crews plan to remove a piece of history from its gigantic pedestal.
A time capsule from 1887 that state officials believe is tucked inside the statue’s base is set to be removed Thursday. It will be replaced with a new time capsule that contains items reflective of current times, including an expired vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a Black Lives Matter sticker and a photograph of a Black ballerina with her fist raised near the Lee statue after racial justice protests erupted following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Historical records and imaging tests helped state officials pinpoint the capsule’s location in the cornerstone of the 40-foot tall concrete pedestal.
A newspaper article from 1887 suggests that the copper time capsule contains mostly memorabilia, including a U.S. silver dollar and a collection of Confederate buttons. But one line from that article has piqued the interest of historians. Listed among the artifacts is a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.”
It is unclear what kind of a picture it is, but the article says it was donated by “Miss Pattie Leake,” who was a school principal from a prominent local family.
Harold Holzer, a historian and Lincoln scholar, told The Associated Press earlier this year that he believes it’s highly doubtful that the picture is an actual photograph of Lincoln in his coffin because the only known photo of Lincoln in death was taken by photographer Jeremiah Gurney in City Hall in New York on April 24, 1865.
Holzer said it’s more likely it could be a popular Currier & Ives lithographic print of Lincoln lying in state in New York or a sketch done by someone who may have witnessed Lincoln’s body during a two-week tour the president’s body was taken on before his burial in Springfield, Illinois.
The bronze equestrian statue of Lee was one of five enormous Confederate tributes along Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the only one that belonged to the state. The four city-owned statues were taken down last summer, but the Lee statue removal was blocked by two lawsuits until a ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia last week cleared the way for it to be taken down on Wednesday.
After the time capsule is removed, it will be brought to a state Department of Historic Resources lab, where historians will immediately open it and begin to preserve the approximately 60 items believed to be inside.
Gov. Ralph Northam said the original time capsule reflects Virginia in 1890, but the 39 items contained in the new capsule reflect “who we are as a people in 2021.”
“The past 18 months have seen historic change, from the pandemic to protests for racial justice that led to the removal of these monuments to a lost cause. It is fitting that we replace the old time capsule with a new one that tells that story,” Northam said in a news release.