Apr 06, 2003

Lincoln statue unveiled


Richmond welcomed Abraham Lincoln back with patriotic music, enthusiastic applause and boos yesterday, 138 years after he entered the smoldering capital of the Confederacy.

Smiling children and dignitaries slowly lifted a forest green cloth, unveiling a life-size bronze statue of Lincoln and his son, Tad, at a spot near the James River.

The crowd immediately erupted in cheers - and howls - for the 16th president, who is both hailed as a hero and condemned as a tyrant in Richmond.

"We in Virginia are glad to claim him as one of our own. Abraham Lincoln is one of us," Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine told the crowd at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center.

A small plane pulling a red "Sic Semper Tyrannis" (Thus Always to Tyrants) banner flew over the stage as Kaine spoke. Earlier, lusty rebel yells and whistles echoed outside the park gates as other speakers praised Lincoln.

As speakers recited Lincoln's words during the ceremony, 8-year-old Alexandra Mitchell stood in the audience and quietly mouthed the parts she had memorized, according to her father, Ron.

The National Park Service estimated 850 people turned out for the event, a few wearing Union Army uniforms. With morning showers giving way to a brilliant afternoon sun, parasols took the place of umbrellas.

The U.S. Historical Society donated the statue to the National Park Service as a symbol of reconciliation and unity. It sits at the former Tredegar Iron Works, once a major supplier of munitions to the Confederate army.

The statue depicts Lincoln with his arm draped around the shoulders of his son, who celebrated his 12th birthday during the Richmond visit. A copy of the April 5, 1865, issue of the Richmond Whig sits on the bench with them. The Lincolns arrived in Richmond on April 4, and the president returned to the city by barge a day later to meet former Confederate leaders.

Several people at yesterday's event made connections between the unveiling of the statue and the war in Iraq.

"The same things that we are struggling for in Iraq today are not so different from the things he was struggling for 138 years ago," said Bill Laslett, a Richmond architect and self-described "big fan of Lincoln."

"This opportunity is precisely what came out of the Civil War, the opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings. I think Lincoln firmly believed that would be the outcome," Laslett said.

Some protesters unfurled a huge Confederate Navy Jack from the back of their pickup truck on a hilltop overlooking the proceedings. Several people grumbled that officials barred them from bringing their Union and Confederate flags to the ceremony.

Earlier yesterday, the Sons of Confederate Veterans held a rally at Jefferson Davis' gravesite in Hollywood Cemetery to protest the arrival of the Lincoln statue.

Among the participants was H.K. Edgerton, former chairman of the NAACP in Asheville, N.C.

"I'm a Southern man," said Edgerton. "When somebody does something as ignorant as put Abe Lin- coln in the capital of the Confederacy, how can I not come to protest it? You don't put a criminal up and call it reconciliation, and Lincoln was a war criminal on top of it."

To finance the statue, the Richmond-based U.S. Historical Society is offering for sale 750 bronze miniatures of the statue for $875 each. Last week, the group reported selling 60. Critics, including U.S. Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., R-5th, have questioned the nonprofit status of the private organization.

The Richmond City Council came under fire in February for adopting a resolution calling the Lincoln statue a "symbol of unity and reconciliation." The council also caught flak for agreeing to contribute up to $45,000 toward the granite plaza for the monument.

This sort of controversy is not new in Richmond.

City residents have clashed over erecting a statue of black tennis star Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue, which is lined with statues of Confederate generals. Others have fought over putting a Robert E. Lee mural on the city's floodwall. And they have argued over a City Council resolution honoring Gabriel, a slave who planned a violent revolt, as an "American patriot and freedom fighter."

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder predicted yesterday such controversy won't go away anytime soon in Richmond. He sees the Lincoln statute as a step in the right direction.

"Time marches on and leaves many in its wake," said Wilder, one of the guest speakers at the statue unveiling. "And fortunately, the wake lessens with the passing of the years. There are not many people who will continue to live in the past."

Richmond has seen dramatic changes since the Civil War. More than half of the city's 197,790 residents are black. Richmonders have elected majority black City Councils with black mayors and vice mayors. And Wilder became the first and only black governor elected in the United States, while he was living in Richmond.

Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum Jr. said the Lincoln statue is long past due.

"It's better late then never to be able to tell the whole story" about the Civil War, Mayor Rudolph C. McCollum Jr. said. "I don't think we have been telling very much of the Union side and the slavery side of it. This is a great day for the city of Richmond, the commonwealth and the country."

Marsha Hunt and her 10-year-old son, Daniel, wanted to see the Lincoln statue, but when Hunt noticed the protesters she thought Daniel might pick up a lesson in freedom of speech along the way.

"I didn't like them," Daniel said. "I think Abe Lincoln was a good person, and I'm glad that the slaves were freed.

Brenda Frierson and her family sought shade under some trees with a clear view of the proceedings.

"This is a historic moment and our kids are learning a lot about this whole time," said Frierson, who went to the unveiling with her husband and four sons, "we just could not live here in Richmond and not give them the chance to experience this."

Frierson said her family was making a day of it: "In fact, we'll have to go to dinner when we're through here. This is really a celebration for us."

Elderly and blind, civil-rights giant Oliver Hill attended yesterday's event in his wheelchair, imagining what the statue looks like.

He is known for representing black Prince Edward County schoolchildren in a lawsuit that was one of five consolidated in the Brown v. Board of Education case. That case led to the unanimous Supreme Court decision finding unconstitutional "separate, but equal" schools for blacks and whites.

"The spirit of it is great," Hill said as he sat beside the Lincoln statue. "It is the finest thing that has happened in years."

Contact Jeremy Redmon at (804) 649-6804 or jredmon@timesdispatch.com

Contact Lindsay Kastner at (804) 524-9725 or lkastner@timesdispatch.com

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