White contractors wouldn’t remove Confederate statues in Virginia, so a Black man did it
The Washington Post January 3, 2023
RICHMOND, Va. — Workers in bright yellow vests circled up in the morning chill. Some clutched cups of Starbucks coffee, a last comfort before beginning the hard work of dismantling a statue of Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill in the middle of an intersection.
As a small group of Confederate heritage defenders assembled nearby — at least one of them armed — city safety coordinator Miles Jones lectured the work crew on wearing hard hats and eye protection. And who, he asked, would be the site supervisor? A bearded man in Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Norfolk State University sweatshirt stepped forward.
"What's your name, sir?" Jones asked.
"Devon Hen-" Jones began, then dropped his voice respectfully. "Oh, Mr. Henry. Of course."
The name carries weight in Richmond these days. Over the past three years, as the former capital of the Confederacy has taken down more than a dozen monuments to the Lost Cause, Henry — who is Black — has overseen all the work.
He didn't seek the job. He had never paid much attention to Civil War history. City and state officials said they turned to Team Henry Enterprises after a long list of bigger contractors — all white-owned — said they wanted no part of taking down Confederate statues.
For a Black man to step in carried enormous risk. Henry concealed the name of his company for a time and long shunned media interviews. He has endured death threats, seen employees walk away and been told by others in the industry that his future is ruined. He started wearing a bulletproof vest on job sites and got a permit to carry a concealed firearm for protection.
The drama interrupted Henry's careful efforts to build his business. But after removing 24 monuments in Virginia and North Carolina, Henry, 45, has grown more comfortable with his role in enabling a historic reckoning with social injustice across the South. The threats haven't let up; Henry has simply learned to live with them.
"My head's in a different place now," he said. "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."
Over and over, history-minded friends directed Henry to the words of John Mitchell Jr., the civil rights pioneer and editor of the Richmond Planet, a groundbreaking African American newspaper. In 1890, the year the state erected an enormous statue of Robert E. Lee on what would become Monument Avenue, Mitchell wrote about the resilience of the Black person in society.
"The Negro … put up the Lee monument," Mitchell wrote, "and should the time come, will be there to take it down."
— — —
The call that changed Henry's life came in the middle of a business meeting in early June 2020. He ignored it, at first. But his phone kept going off, and finally a friend texted — you might want to pick up.
On the line was Clark Mercer, the chief of staff for then-Gov. Ralph Northam, with a wild proposition: Would Henry's construction company be willing to oversee the dismantling of the giant statue of Lee on state-owned property along Monument Avenue?
Such a thing was nowhere on Henry's radar screen. His company was experienced at building things, and at preparing sites for construction.
Outside of work, though, change was in the air. Partly in reaction to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the General Assembly had passed a bill early in 2020 to allow localities to take down Confederate statues. That May, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police touched off nationwide racial justice protests that in Richmond focused on Monument Avenue and its iconic memorials.
Northam, a Democrat, decided it was time to act. Protesters and police were clashing every night. He wanted to move fast.
Mercer and Henry had met some time before at an event at Norfolk State, Henry's alma mater and where he sits on the board of visitors. Now Mercer confessed that he was reaching out because he was desperate. Everyone else had turned him down.
"I was pretty forthcoming that we hadn't been able to find anybody to take on the job," Mercer said in an interview. In fact, the responses from other contractors were "pretty overtly racist," he said, including language that he found threatening. "Devon seemed to understand the magnitude of what I was asking him."
Henry never paid much attention to Confederate monuments. Growing up in Hampton and Newport News, he went to Robert E. Lee Elementary School, but the name meant little to him. There were bigger concerns.
His mother had been only 16 when Henry was born in Lumberton, N.C. She moved to Hampton Roads and took up work in McDonald's restaurants to support herself and her baby. At 14, Devon began taking shifts at McDonald's as well.
He got good grades in school and developed an ambition to be a doctor. But after majoring in biology at Norfolk State, Henry found himself drawn to business. After college, he got into the corporate leadership program at General Electric, and the company paid for him to get a master's degree as he worked in its infrastructure division. He immersed himself in biographies of business leaders — such as Ray Kroc of McDonald's.
His mother, meanwhile, had taken advantage of training programs at McDonald's, climbed the ladder and then — by the time Henry was grown — became a franchisee. She wound up owning five restaurants in the Richmond area.
Her example of hard work pushed Henry. When he learned of a small construction business going up for sale in the city of Suffolk, he made a snap decision to leave G.E. and put all his savings into buying it. Henry and his wife commuted 90 minutes every day from Richmond to Suffolk — in separate cars so one could get back and pick up their daughter from school.
Over time, Henry expanded the business and relocated it closer to home. He always tried to be socially conscious, becoming a Federal Emergency Management Agency contractor to help people in need. But in early 2020, one particular job transformed his outlook about what was possible: Team Henry was the general contractor for construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia.
"It was and is still today our most meaningful project," Henry said. Winning that job "wasn't about the money. It was about the meaning and the response that it would have. Giving voice to the voiceless."
He attended Charlottesville community sessions to hear people speak about what they wanted the memorial to convey. He helped pick out the stone and flew to Wisconsin to watch it being cut. Then he carefully fit each piece together into a sweeping circle — in honor of people whose lives had been all but erased.
Participating in something like that "gives you purpose, and meaning for your work," he said.
So when Mercer called to pitch him on taking down a Confederate monument, Henry viewed it differently than he might have before.
He had come to understand that those statues — especially Lee — were like religious objects to their defenders. They had stood more than a century as totems of a powerful mythology: that slavery was somehow benign, that Southerners were the noble victims of Northern aggression, that things were better when White people presided over an orderly world. The Lost Cause.
For a Black man to destroy such a symbol would put his life, his family, his livelihood on the line. Henry knew that in Louisiana, a white contractor withdrew from the job of removing four Confederate monuments after receiving death threats. Someone torched the man's car.
But Henry saw this as a powerful chance to give a bit of justice to the souls represented by the memorial to enslaved people. He wanted to talk with his family and his team at the company before committing. Mercer told him to take a few hours.
Henry immediately went home and rounded up his wife and teenage daughter and son. He explained that he had an opportunity that would be somewhat controversial, and described it. "My son was like, well Dad, look, you're going to always be my hero so it doesn't really matter," Henry said. "But this would be really cool."
His wife and daughter agreed.
At work, some employees "really didn't like the idea of it at all and were not in favor of us moving forward," he said. "Some were more about security, safety. Some just didn't believe in the work." A few who were opposed eventually left the company.
But Henry called Mercer back and agreed to do it. Once on board, he pushed to act quickly, without warning the public. But as soon as Northam called a news conference to announce that the statue was coming down, a handful of local residents filed a lawsuit to stop him. Court proceedings put the project on ice for more than a year.
Within just a few weeks, though, Henry got another call. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wanted to take down a whole series of monuments on city property. Bob Steidel, a deputy city administrator tasked with making it happen, had run into the same problem as Mercer trying to find a contractor. Then someone with the state suggested Henry.
"He was the only one to step up, and I give him all respect for that because in June of 2020 it was a difficult decision to be made," Steidel said in an interview. "Personally, professionally — he had everything at stake, and he still did it."
Once again, Henry had to move fast. His biggest need was finding a crane that could lift the statues. He thought he had one lined up in Hampton Roads, but when the company's patriarch found out that his son had tentatively agreed, he threatened to cut the son out of the business, Henry said. Eventually, Henry found a willing crane operator in Connecticut.
The next big issue: security. This was all being done on the fly. Protesters and police were facing off on the streets around the statues every night. Virginia's new law allowing the monuments to come down hadn't technically gone into effect yet, and Richmond's acting city attorney refused to give Stoney his blessing. City police didn't want to participate under those circumstances, Stoney said in an interview.
Henry used some divine pressure to solve the problem. He attended the same church as Richmond Sheriff Antionette Irving. With the pastor's help, he persuaded Irving to provide about a half-dozen deputies to keep watch at the work site.
On July 1, 2020, the first target — a statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson at an intersection along Monument Avenue — came down amid chaos on a cinematic scale.
Through miscommunication, traffic control set up barricades at the wrong intersection. Henry had to maneuver his equipment into place as a handful of deputies struggled to keep traffic at bay. His younger brother showed up to make sure Henry was safe.
Thousands of onlookers chanted, screamed and taunted the bronze figure of Jackson high on his horse. One tearful Confederate defender begged for work to stop; deputies had to haul him away. As TV cameras carried the scene live nationwide, Henry's men kept trying and failing to get the statue detached from its stone base. And then the heavens poured torrential rain.
Stoney, monitoring from a secret location to avoid being served any court papers that might halt the action, kept calling Henry. What was the delay? Henry's mother kept calling with the same question. He quit looking at his phone. Crew members cut a hole in the base of the statue and discovered an underpinning holding it in place. Once that was disconnected, Henry signaled the crane to put some tension on the line. When the statue wobbled, Henry felt a sudden rush of panic.
"I'm like, oh, s---, this is really about to happen," he said.
Finally, with church bells ringing and lightning flashing, the crane lifted the statue high into the rainstorm just as a mighty clap of thunder drowned out the roaring crowd.
"People are crying, people are jumping up and down, I'm going crazy," Henry remembered. "At this point, law enforcement had no control. It was a hundred percent chaotic." As the crane lowered the statue to the ground, Henry was awed by the size of the thing. The crowd surged forward; someone said they wanted to urinate on it. Henry hollered for people to stay back.
Then he noticed one African American woman looking at him with an expression of utter disgust. Henry said he felt confused; wasn't she happy at what he had just done?
"She was like, 'Why are you showing so much care to the statue? Just drop it. Just let it go. Just kick it over. Nobody cared about George Floyd, but you care about this statue?'"
At that moment, Henry realized just how difficult this work was going to be. He resolved to stay professional. "I wasn't going to let my feelings, or being a Black man and knowing what these statues represent, get in front of me being a professional and doing my job," he said.
— — —
Over the next few weeks, Henry and his team moved on to dismantle more than a dozen other monuments around Richmond under a $1.8 million umbrella contract. Though Henry initially concealed his company behind a shell called NAH LLC — as in, "nah, these statues need to come down," he said — local observers soon caught on. A political rival on the City Council accused Stoney of improperly awarding the contract because Henry had donated $4,000 to the mayor's campaign several years before. Investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Henry's crew was getting better at its unusual work, and was becoming in demand as more and more localities followed suit. He removed the statues of Lee and Jackson in Charlottesville that had been the focus of the white-supremacist rally. He took down a statue of Jackson at Virginia Military Institute, where someone threw a bag of fried chicken at the workers. He was invited to remove a statue in Shreveport, La., Henry said, but declined because the work included reinstalling the monument on a battlefield.
"I wanted no part of that," he said.
Fielding threats became routine, from racial slurs shouted by passing vehicles to menacing voice mails. Henry referred all those to the police, who had eventually become close partners. Someone called the crane company and warned that they'd never get back to Connecticut. Callers tried to get the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to shut down the work sites. Others tried to get the labor union to step in.
All the while, Henry was planning for the big one — the huge statue of Lee on state-owned property. The Supreme Court of Virginia cleared away the last legal challenge, and work was set for Sept. 8, 2021.
That day was bright and sunny. Police cleared the vast traffic circle around the monument. Onlookers, kept at a distance, danced and sang with the happy air of a street party.
Henry rode a bucket truck up alongside the statue as his crew, now experts at this kind of work, quickly removed the bolts that secured it to the base. Henry actually slowed the process for a few moments; he needed to give Northam time to get there from the State Capitol.
Suddenly, Henry felt overcome with emotion. He thought about Jimmy Palmer, a rigger with the crane company who had become a close friend but died of cancer before he could help bring Lee down. He thought about all the elderly Black people who had told him they never thought they'd see this day. And about how they thanked him for fulfilling Mitchell's vision.
"It hit me like a bag of rocks," he said. He told the bucket truck operator to take him down. "I just started crying."
The statue was hoisted off its pedestal in less than an hour after 131 years of towering over Richmond's grandest street. Henry's mother — Freda Thornton, who now lives in South Carolina — ran through the security barricade and surprised her weeping son with a big hug.
"I just kind of held him for a minute, just to let him get himself together," Thornton remembered. "I told him, 'You did it, and God's favor protected you and it's over.' I said, 'It's over, the work is completed now.'"
— — —
There was, of course, one more Richmond statue to come down. The A.P. Hill monument was different because the general's remains were buried beneath it. Court proceedings for moving a grave delayed the project, giving Henry and the city time to plan.
In the meantime, Henry said, his business boomed. If some potential clients avoided him because of the statues, more sought him out. "We're busier than we've ever been," he said; Team Henry has grown to 200 employees after starting out 15 years ago with just four.
The company won recent contracts to build a bank and a credit union, and to rehabilitate a structure that once housed enslaved Africans at what's now the Richmond Hill religious retreat.
As he thought about the significance of the Confederate statues, Henry decided he wanted to find a way to turn the destruction into something positive. That led to a venture in which artists of color created digital images of statues being dismantled that can be sold as NFTs, with all proceeds going to charities. "We want to kind of change the narrative a little bit about the removal and what they mean," Henry said.
The Thirteen Stars project — a reference to the Confederate battle flag — was set to debut in 2022 but stalled when the cryptocurrency market and NFT craze both cooled. Henry said he's ready to launch again.
When it came time in early December to finally get the Hill removal underway, Henry approached it methodically. From his point of view, there would be little emotion with this one. That was for the Hill relatives and funeral home workers on hand to take care of the general's remains.
Henry's mission as the man who finally drove the Confederates out of Richmond was nearly complete. He had a brief, blunt message that morning for the chilly workers as they prepared to do the unusual work that has become so familiar.
"It's the last one," he told them. "Let's do it right and get out of here."