Crews may have found 1887 time capsule in Lee statue base

Denise Lavoie
Associated Press

Richmond, Va. — Crews working to remove the pedestal where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee towered over Richmond for more than a century believe they've found a time capsule that was buried there in 1887.

The massive bronze equestrian statue of Lee, erected in 1890, was taken down in September, more than a year after Gov. Ralph Northam ordered its removal after protests over racism and police brutality erupted across the country — including in Richmond — following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The day after the statue was removed, work crews spent more than 12 hours searching for the time capsule in the 40-foot (12-meter) tall pedestal, but were unable to locate it.

Michael Spence, superintendent for Team Henry construction, looks over a time capsule that was placed in 1887 in the pedestal that once held the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, Friday Dec. 17, 2021, in Richmond, Va.

On Friday, Northam announced that crews found the top of a square box embedded in a 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) granite block. It was located approximately 20 feet (6 meters) off the ground in the main section of the pedestal, not in its base. Workers who searched for it in September believed it was tucked inside or under a cornerstone of the pedestal.

Northam said in a news release that the stone must be removed and lowered to the ground before historic preservation teams are able to confirm whether it is the time capsule.

“It looks like it is (the time capsule),” said Clark Mercer, Northam's chief of staff. “We're hoping it hasn't been damaged by water over the last 100-plus years.”

A newspaper article from 1887 suggests the capsule contains Civil War memorabilia and a “picture of Lincoln lying in his coffin,” although historians believe it’s doubtful the picture is an actual photograph, which would be rare and valuable.

Records from the Library of Virginia suggest 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.

If workers confirm the box is the time capsule, it will be transported to the state Department of Historic Resources to be opened using best practices for historic preservation to maintain the integrity of the artifacts.

The Lee statue, which became a symbol of racial injustice, 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 taken down.

Northam 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 murder 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.