Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered the removal of one of the country’s most iconic monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee along Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
“In 2020, we can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people,” the governor said.
The announcement at a news conference Thursday morning was met with extended applause.
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The six-story-tall bronze statue, which sits on state property, will be removed as soon as possible, Northam ordered the state’s Department of General Services.
The governor was introduced by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who spoke powerfully.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time. It’s time. It’s time to put an end to the lost cause and fully embrace the righteous cause,” he said.
Rev. Robert Lee IV, an ancestor of the Confederate leader, said the state must address the painful truths of white supremacy and racism.
“A new day is coming, not only for the United States but for the world,” he said.
Virginia has more Confederate symbols than another other state and must now fight hate, Northam said, calling racism “a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives, whether we know it or not.”
The statue will be placed in a warehouse as officials work “with the community to determine its future," Northam said. Discussions are ongoing on what to do with the pedestal. Placing another statue on it is a possibility.
Northam's decision comes amid turmoil across the nation and around the world over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, even after he stopped moving.
Floyd's death has sparked outrage over issues of racism and police brutality and prompted a new wave of Confederate memorial removals in which even some of their longtime defenders have relented.
The Monument Avenue Preservation Group argued that Northam does not have the authority to move the statue.
"We are working hard to appeal to the President to step in to stop this recklessness which is bent on destroying our neighborhood, which is a National Historic Landmark, a cultural treasure and a place honoring American veterans,” the group said in a Facebook post.
Northam's move is an extraordinary victory for civil rights activists, whose calls for the removal of that monument and others in this former capital of the Confederacy have been resisted for years.
“That is a symbol for so many people, black and otherwise of a time gone by of hate and oppression and being made to feel less than,” said Del. Jay Jones, a black lawmaker from Norfolk. He said he was “overcome” by emotion when he learned the statue was to come down.
The Lee statue is one of five Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential street and National Historic Landmark district. Monuments along the avenue have been rallying points during protests in recent days over Floyd's death, and they have been tagged with graffiti, including messages that say "end police brutality” and “stop white supremacy.”
Other tragedies in recent years have prompted similar nationwide soul searching over Confederate monuments, which some people regard as inappropriate tributes to the South’s slave-holding past. Others compare monument removals to erasing history.
Confederate memorials began coming down after a white supremacist killed nine black people at a Bible study in a church in South Carolina in 2015 and then again after a violent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.
On Wednesday, Stoney announced plans to seek the removal of the other Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, which include statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. Those statues sit on city land, unlike the Lee statue, which is on state property.
Stoney said he would introduce an ordinance July 1 to have the statues removed. That’s when a new law goes into effect, which was signed earlier this year by Northam, that undoes an existing state law protecting Confederate monuments and instead lets local governments decide their fate.
“I appreciate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission – those were the appropriate recommendations at the time," Stoney said in a statement, referencing a panel he established that studied what should be done with the monuments and recommended the removal of the Davis tribute. "But times have changed, and removing these statues will allow the healing process to begin for so many Black Richmonders and Virginians. Richmond is no longer the Capital of the Confederacy – it is filled with diversity and love for all – and we need to demonstrate that.”
Bill Gallasch, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, said he worried the statues' removal would change the “soul” of the street, hurt tourism in historic Richmond and stir up violence between far-right and far-left groups.
The monument-removal plans also drew criticism from the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“We’re allowing the mob to dictate what will and will not be in the public domain," said B. Frank Earnest, a spokesman for the group.
But Joseph Rogers, a descendant of enslaved people and an organizer with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, said he felt like the voices of black people are finally being heard. Rogers spoke from the vicinity of the Lee Monument, where another rally was taking place late Wednesday afternoon and where he described one wave of cheering after another.
“I am proud to be black, proud to be Southern, proud to be here right now,” he said.