‘Emancipation is a movement’: One Senator’s fight to end her state’s legacy of injustice

by Nate Morris
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Virginia state Senator Jennifer McClellan  stood on the banks of the James River in Richmond last Wednesday, watching history unfold in front of her. With a crowd looking on, officials removed a covering to unveil the awe inspiring Emancipation and Freedom Monument; the first state-sponsored statue in the country honoring enslaved peoples fight for freedom.

“When we pulled the curtain back, I felt sort of the same feeling I did when I gave the final push when my son was born,” McClellan said. “Joy. Relief.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, gives a thumbs-up to a passing motorist who blew the horn as she was holding a press conference to discuss her gubernatorial campaign near the Maggie L. Walker statue in Richmond, Va., on April 8, 2021.Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP file

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, gives a thumbs-up to a passing motorist who blew the horn as she was holding a press conference to discuss her gubernatorial campaign near the Maggie L. Walker statue in Richmond, Va., on April 8, 2021.Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP file

For McClellan and others, this moment was nearly a decade in the making. The statue was originally slated for completion in 2019, to mark the 400-year commemoration of 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to Virginia.  Multiple factors initially delayed the project, and the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back even more. But for McClellan, the 159th anniversary of the original Emancipation Proclamation felt like the exact right moment to unveil a monument dedicated to sharing the real history of the fight for freedom.

“Emancipation was a movement”

“Emancipation was not a moment itself,” McClellan said. “We were taught that Lincoln freed the slaves, but that’s not the full story. It was a movement that began with the abolition of slavery, but legal freedom didn’t come until the 14th Amendment.”


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“Many people were a part of this movement whose names often go unnoticed,” she continued. “We wanted to honor unsung heroes while evoking the emotions of joy and hope that came out of trauma.”

Two 12-foot bronze statues make up the monument on Brown Island. One depicts a Black man, facing the city of Richmond and standing with his arms outstretched as shackles fall to the ground. The other statue, facing toward the river, shows a woman holding an infant. Her eyes are fixed on the horizon as she holds a copy of the proclamation over her head. Her child, cradled in her arms, represents hope for the nation’s future.

The woman stands on a pedestal enshrined with the word “FREEDOM” on one side and the names and images of Virginians who have fought for freedom on the other. Names like Nat Turner, who led an uprising in 1831 and Dred Scott, who took his fight for freedom to the Supreme Court, appear at the base.

Emancipation monument unveiled in Richmod

Community members listen as the Levitical Priests perform “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, during the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission’s dedication and unveil the Emancipation and Freedom Monument on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 at Brown’s Island in Richmond. (SHABAN ATHUMAN/TIMES-DISPATCH/AP)

For McClellan, it was important that this monument centered the stories of formerly enslaved Virginians. Other emancipation monuments exist across the country, but, as McClellan points out, they are “problematic“.

“We, as a country and as a people, suffered a deep family trauma,” McClellan said. “We can’t heal from that trauma unless we first acknowledge it, talk about it, makes amends for it and move on.  That requires us to tell the complete story of our history – the good, bad and the ugly.”

Richmond monument a symbol of hope for the country’s future

This monument is especially personal for McClellan who has been working to bring it to life since 2011. Earlier this year, she ran for Governor of Virginia but came up short in her bid for the Democratic nomination. At the core of her campaign was the fight for racial and social justice for every Virginian.

Last year, she led the charge to make Virginia the first Southern state ever to pass a voting rights act. As she prepares for another legislative session in the Virginia state Senate, she is ready to continue this fight.

“We have made progress in dismantling the systemic legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in our state,” she said, “but there’s still so much more work to do.”

“We have a lot to rebuild in the wake of COVID,” McClellan continued, “in every area you can think of.”

Virginia’s State Capitol is located just a ten minute walk from the monument. McClellan, who’s parents and grandparents grew up in the segregation of the South, will continue her fight for justice and freedom inside the same building that was once the headquarters of the Confederacy.

As symbols of the old South fall and oppressive systems begin to be dismantled, McClellan sees hope in the chance to build something new.

“This moment is about how we reconcile with the last 400 years of our history,” McClellan said. “For 400 years, the idea of ‘life, liberty and justice for all’ didn’t actual include everyone.”

“It’s time for us to truly make it mean all.”

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