Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Says Gen. Robert. E. Lee Statue in Virginia’s Capital Will Come Down ‘As Soon as Possible’ as Protesters Topple Other Confederate Monuments Around the Country

Credit: Reuters

The historic statue depicting Confederate General Robert. E. Lee in Virginia’s capital will come down, the governor announced Thursday following days of protests over the death of George Floyd.

The monument, which depicts the controversial general mounted on a horse, was dedicated in 1890 and has been the topic of fierce debate in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, for decades.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has pledged to remove the Lee statue, while city leaders have also committed to taking down the other four Confederate memorials along Richmond’s prestigious Monument Avenue, in an effort to remove controversial symbols in the state.

‘It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. So, we’re taking it down,’ Northam said Thursday morning, adding the statue will come down ‘as soon as possible’.

The changes amount to a reshaping of how one of America’s most historic cities tells its story in its public spaces – and a rethinking of whom it glorifies.

‘It’s been a long time coming. … We’ve tried marches, petitions, protests, going to city council’ to get the Confederate monuments removed, Phil Wilayto, a longtime community organizer and activist with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, said.

‘And it took what is in effect a mass uprising of the community to say these things are not acceptable,’ he added.

For many, the news of the statue’s removal is a victory of a long-fought battle.

David Harris Jr., a nephew of humanitarian and tennis legend Arthur Ashe, tried for decades to get a street named after his uncle in Richmond, the hometown that once denied Ashe access to segregated public tennis courts.

Finally, in 2019, the City Council approved the renaming over the objections of some city residents. For him, the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue is all the more gratifying.

‘My hat is off to them for getting this done,’ Harris said Friday. ‘It took me 25 years to get the street name changed. I commend these young folks for getting these guys to see it within a week and a half.’

Republican lawmakers, Confederate heritage groups and a Monument Avenue preservation group have criticized the decisions. Many have equated the monuments’ removal to erasing history.

‘Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail,’ Senate GOP leaders said in a statement.

Protesters have gathered around the monument and defaced it with graffiti and spray paint decrying the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, died after a white officer jammed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes as other officers watched on May 25. Video captured Floyd’s arrest and final moments, and his death has sparked protests around the world that demonstrators have vowed to turn into a sustained movement focused on addressing racial injustice.

The Richmond monument decisions, part of a wave of Confederate monument removals around the country, has stunned some observers in this former capital of the Confederacy, a place where even three years ago many residents said they considered removing the statues impractical, or nearly impossible due to a state law that protected war memorials.

And the Robert. E. Lee statue isn’t the only one coming down.

Late Saturday, a small group of demonstrators toppled a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Monroe Park, a Richmond police spokeswoman said. She said she did not know if there were any arrests or damage done to the statue.

A rope had been tied around the statue, which was erected in 1891, and someone urinated on it before it was pulled down, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The new Democratic majority at the General Assembly rewrote a law earlier this year, an effort led by black women lawmakers, that gives Richmond and other localities permission to do as they please when it comes to monuments starting on July 1.

The Lee statue, meanwhile, is on state property.

‘Yes, that statue has been there for a long time,’ Northam said Thursday. ‘But it was wrong then, and it is wrong now. So we´re taking it down.’

The Robert E. Lee statue has been a icon in Richmond for years.

The idea to erect a monument in the Confederate General’s name originated ‘within hours’ of his death, according to a National Register of Historic Places nomination form.

Two rival campaigns to raise money for the memorial dragged on for more than 15 years, and the selected site was a gift of a prominent Richmond businessman, the documents show.

It was the first of five Confederate monuments to be erected on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. It was unveiled in May 1890, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were long over, and Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.

The statue arrived in Richmond in pieces from France, where it was created. Thousands of Virginians used wagons to help pull the pieces for more than a mile to what was then an empty field. That field is now part of Monument Avenue, the city’s grandest boulevard and one that’s been visited over the years by dignitaries including then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

To white citizens in the late 19th century, the statue of Lee, a Civil War hero and native Virginian, was a cause for celebration. Some even saved pieces of the rope used to haul the statue as souvenirs.

But black citizens felt a deep-seated animosity toward the statue, seeing it as a glorification of slavery, the Civil War and their treatment as second-class citizens, said Julian Hayter, a historian and professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

Today, the 21-foot bronze equestrian sculpture that shows the general in military attire sits atop a 40-foot pedestal on whose side is featured a single word: ‘Lee.’

Northam emphasized the monument’s enormous size in his remarks Thursday, saying that at six stories tall, it towers over homes, businesses and ‘everyone who lives in Virginia.’

‘And when it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message: “This is what we value the most.” But that’s just not true anymore,’ he said.

Reverend Robert Wright Lee, a fourth-generation descendant of the Confederate general was also at the Thursday announcement and on Twitter issued a statement supporting the removal.

‘Though I know the statue’s eventual promised removal won’t fix the issues we face it is a sign that sentiments and hearts are changing toward justice,’ he shared.

Joseph Rogers, a descendant of enslaved people and an organizer with the Defenders who spoke with AP this week from a rally at the Lee monument, said he felt he was witnessing history when he learned the statue would be removed.

He also said the moment felt like ‘a fulfillment of prophecy,’ a reference to words written by the black editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper who covered the unveiling of the Lee memorial.

‘(The black man) put up the Lee Monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down,’ John Mitchell Jr. wrote.

Elsewhere on the broad avenue are statues to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, generals J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced this week that he and a city councilman would introduce an ordinance removing the statues, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch has reported the city council has unanimously affirmed support for such a move.

Dr. Fergie Reid, who grew up in segregated Richmond and in 1967 became the first African American elected to the Virginia General Assembly since Reconstruction, called the monuments’ removal ‘long overdue.’ But Reid, 95, said he thinks they still have historical value.

‘I think they should go to a museum – just like the dinosaurs,’ he said.

Confederate and controversial monuments in Alabama, Virginia, and Tennessee have also been toppled following pressure from George Floyd protesters including the 131-year-old bronze statue of Confederate soldier ‘Appomattox’ in Alexandria, Virginia and the 115-year-old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument in Birmingham, Alabama.

SOURCE: Daily Mail, AP