Posted on January 3, 2023

White Contractors Wouldn’t Remove Confederate Statues. So a Black Man Did It.

Gregory S. Schneider, Washington Post, January 2, 2023

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 Henry.”

“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.


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. {snip}


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.


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. {snip}


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.


“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?’”


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.


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.