In June 2020 when former Gov. Ralph Northam’s office wanted someone willing to remove the giant Robert E. Lee Monument, several contractors, all white, turned down the offer. Many were afraid or unwilling to risk their career to touch Confederate statues at a time when emotions were high in Richmond following the murder of George Floyd and amid a pandemic.
Then came Devon Henry, a Black man who owns Team Henry Enterprises. The 45-year-old was willing to risk his life and career to take down the Lee statue on the state-owned property along Monument Avenue. Henry would go on to supervise the removal of 24 Confederate statues in Virginia and North Carolina. By doing so, he fulfilled a prophecy by Richmond civil rights activist and newspaper editor John Mitchell. In 1890, after Black laborers had hoisted Lee onto his pedestal, Mitchell wrote in his paper that “the Negro … put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.”
“To realize that something that was said in the late 1800s was coming to fruition in 2021 and that I was the guy that he was speaking of. It’s extremely, extremely emotional,” Henry told NBC 12.
Henry had not thought of Confederate statues prior to the call from Northam’s chief of staff Clark Mercer in June 2020 to help remove the Lee statue. Following his work as the general contractor for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, Henry had come to understand the importance that people attached to monuments. He knew what taking down a Lee statue symbolized. So he decided to take the job. But that came with a lot of threats to his life and business.
It was tough putting together a team to work with. “Everyone said, ‘Hell no, Devon, I’m not touching that. No, no way are we supporting you. No way are we helping you.’ These were people that we worked with for years,” he recalled to NBC 12. Besides losing some of his employees, he endured death threats. He began wearing a bulletproof vest on sites and got a permit to carry a concealed firearm for protection, he told The Washington Post.
“The next thing you know, we get a call; there’s an injunction. So, we had to stop everything,” said Henry. Local residents filed a lawsuit to stop him from removing the Lee statue, so the project had to be put on hold. But other Confederate statues on city property could be removed. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney wanted to take down those statues but still faced the same problem of finding a contractor. At the same time, demonstrators were pulling down some of the statues amid the racial justice protests that followed Floyd’s killing.
The mayor contacted Henry and he agreed to do the job amid a “ton of threats”. The Black businessman recalled the chaotic scene in 2020 as he removed the Stonewall Jackson Monument in Richmond. Deputies were provided for safety but the police chief refused to provide crowd control because state law still did not allow the statue’s removal. It also started raining before the crane was able to lift the statue.
“The moment couldn’t have been more script and just more perfect. With everything that was happening from the weather, to the people, to the energy, to us just figuring out, we just took down the first Confederate statue here in the former capital of the Confederacy,” Henry recounted.
“People are crying, people are jumping up and down, I’m going crazy,” Henry told the Post. “At this point, law enforcement had no control. It was a hundred percent chaotic.”
After the Stonewall monument was the removal of others such as Matthew Fontaine Maury, JEB Stuart, the Confederate cannons, and Soldiers & Sailors in Libby Hill. But Henry had not forgotten about the Lee statue. In September 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the project to get it removed could go on. Leading that project was “extremely emotional”, Henry said. After 131 years, Lee was gone.
Henry had also been inspired by his humble beginnings to take on this risky project. His mom gave birth to him when she was 16. Growing up in Hampton Roads, he worked alongside his mom at McDonald’s when he was 14. He graduated from Norfolk State University and worked at General Electric before using his savings to start his construction business.
While a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Incorporated at NSU, he met the late Congressman John Lewis, who was also a member. Lewis always asked him if he was “getting in good trouble”.
“And I would tell him ‘we’re doing things,’ and he would say, “You could do more.”
“So every time I do one of these removals, there is that thought of Good Trouble, and I always have that t-shirt on,” said Henry.