Mystery lingers around time capsule found beneath Lee statue

U.S. & World
Chelsea Blake

Conservator for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Chelsea Blake, works to open a time capsule that was removed form the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Ave. Wednesday Dec. 22, 2021, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A rust-colored 1875 almanac, a cloth envelope and a silver coin were found Wednesday in a time capsule that lay hidden beneath a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia for more than 130 years.

As intriguing as the water-damaged items were, they’re not what many were expecting to see after state conservators spent five hours gingerly prying the time capsule open. Even the mortar-encrusted lead box was a bit of a surprise.

Historical records led many to believe the capsule held dozens of objects related to the Confederacy as well as a picture of deceased President Abraham Lincoln. But in just a few minutes, its contents were revealed and the items were few.

There were three books total. Besides the almanac, there was a tattered book with a pink cover that appeared to be an edition of “The Huguenot Lovers: A Tale of the Old Dominion” by Collinson Pierrepont Edwards Burgwyn. He was a city of Richmond civil engineer who worked on the plans for Monument Avenue, where the Lee statue had stood.

There also appeared to be a pamphlet of some kind that made reference to water power facilities for the city of Manchester, a community south of Richmond.

Devon Henry, the contractor who took down the Lee statue and is continuing to work on the removal of the pedestal in Richmond, said there could be a second time capsule that’s yet to be found.

“I’m as intrigued as everyone,” he said, as conservators worked to open the capsule. “It was a huge relief to find it. Secondly, we need to see if it’s what we are looking for.”

The day after the Lee statue was removed in September, work crews spent more than 12 hours searching for the time capsule in the base of the 40-foot-tall (12-meter-tall) pedestal but were unable to locate it.

A time capsule was eventually found on Friday, embedded 20 feet (6 meters) high in the pedestal.

Henry said his work crew is still being extra careful given that the container opened Wednesday doesn’t match the description of the time capsule they were expecting.

A newspaper article from 1887 –- the year a time capsule was embedded in the pedestal — suggested that the capsule contains Civil War memorabilia and a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin.” Records from the Library of Virginia also suggested that 37 Richmond residents, organizations and businesses contributed about 60 objects to the capsule, many of which are believed to be related to the Confederacy.

That time capsule was believe to be a copper box measuring 14-by-14-by-8 inches (35-by-35-by-20 centimeters), larger than the lead box pulled from the pedestal last week. Besides there being far fewer objects, the capsule removed Friday measured 4-by-8-by-11.5 inches (10-by-20-by-30 centimeters) and was made of lead.

“We were really surprised to find something lead,” said Julie Langan, the director of the state’s Department of Historic Resources.

The team at the state Department of Historical Resources will catalog the artifacts and expects to have more details on their makeup and their possible origins in a few days. The books will be put in a freezer to avoid mold and the silver coin, which started to tarnish when the box was open, will be kept in a dry place to limit deterioration.

Before the work began to open the capsule on Wednesday, Gov. Northam said Virginia doesn’t need monuments that glorify the Confederacy.

“We are a Commonwealth that embraces diversity,” he said. “We are inclusive.”

The Lee statue was erected in 1890 and was long seen as a symbol of racial injustice in the former capital of the Confederacy. Its removal in September came more than a year after Northam ordered it in the wake of protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Lee statue was one of five Confederate tributes along Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the only one that belonged to the state. The four city-owned statues were taken down in 2020, but the Lee statue removal was blocked by two lawsuits until a ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia in September cleared the way for it to be dismantled.

Northam, a Democrat, announced earlier this month that the enormous pedestal would be removed, a reversal from September, when the governor said the pedestal would stay in place so its future could be determined by a community-driven effort to reimagine Monument Avenue.

After Floyd’s killing in 2020, the Lee statue became a focal point of the racial justice movement in Richmond. Since then, the pedestal has been covered in graffiti, some of it profane and much of it denouncing the police. Some activists wanted to see it remain in place as a work of protest art.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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