Not all heroes wear capes, but when it came to finally removing confederate statues under a new Virginia law, a Black man named Devon Henry saved the day. The Washington Post reports that only Team Henry Enterprises would remove the racist monuments after every White-owned contractor in Richmond refused the jobs.
Until 2020, a previous Virginia law made war monuments, especially for treacherous racist Confederate losers, untouchable.
Like all progress toward justice in the U.S., the policy change meant nothing without people collectively willing to enforce it. In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, Henry didn’t just face reluctance from his White counterparts. Accepting this job, which he never asked for, put a target on his back and everyone who worked for him.
Henry risked more than money by accepting the job
The Norfolk State University alumni faced threats of blackballing in the construction industry and even violence. The racist intimidation didn’t stop Henry, but confronting White Supremacist history requires a different kind of protection. In addition to safety equipment, Henry started to wear a bulletproof vest and concealed firearm at his worksites. He also concealed his company’s name and declined press coverage until he finished the job.
“My head’s in a different place now. It’s like, I’m not scared to cross the street, but I’m always going to look both ways, right? So I’m not totally oblivious to who I am and what I’ve done, but I’m just not letting fear kind of drive what I do,” Henry said about living with the threats.
Growing up in Hampton and Newport News, Henry was no stranger to living with ever-present racist intimidation. Homages to the antebellum South were part of his everyday life. Even his elementary school was dedicated to Robert E. Lee.
Former Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, approached Henry about the job in June 2020. Mercer was blunt about the professional risk, historical implications, and that Henry was already the last resort.
“I was pretty forthcoming that we hadn’t been able to find anybody to take on the job,” Mercer previously said about the “pretty overtly racist” White contractors. “Devon seemed to understand the magnitude of what I was asking him.”
Many of the same people fighting to erase actual history from classrooms and libraries were furious defenders of these statues. Several lawsuits and thousands of Confederate-loving protestors fought to stop the removals. Despite the diehard defenders, Henry started work July 1, 2020, with a statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
“Over two years ago, Richmond was home to more confederate statues than any city in the United States,” Mayor Levar Stoney tweeted about closing this shameful chapter.
Henry turned the end of an era into new beginnings
Henry’s company specialized in preparing and completing construction but quickly developed a reputation with other cities following Richmond’s lead. Instead of the business suffering from blackballing, it became busier than ever. The 45-year-old also removed statues of Lee and Jackson in Charlottesville and at the Virginia Military Institute.
With Richmond’s monuments behind him, Henry found new ways to turn this brutal past into a brighter future. The slate of upcoming projects includes restoring a structure that once housed enslaved Africans for the Richmond Hill religious retreat.
The work of rebuilding will continue with Henry’s CryptoFederacy project. The art collection by creators of color will depict digital images of monument removals. All proceeds from the sales of the art as NFTs will go to charities.
“We want to kind of change the narrative a little bit about the removal and what they mean,” Henry said.