By Carol Vaughn —
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee will be removed from its pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
The announcement comes in the wake of days of protests in Richmond and elsewhere after the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.
The 6-story tall, 12-ton bronze statue, which was made in France and delivered to the city in May 1890, will be placed in storage for the time being.
“We will work with the community to determine its future,” Northam said.
Northam said the Lee statue is owned by the commonwealth, unlike the others on the avenue, and therefore can be removed at his order.
The General Assembly this year passed legislation, proposed by Northam, allowing localities to determine what to do with Confederate monuments in their jurisdictions, striking down a state law that had prohibited localities from taking down war monuments.
The law takes effect July 1.
Northam spoke about Virginia’s 400 years of history since 1619, when the first legislative assembly met and also when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia.
“Today we are here to be honest about our past and to talk about our future,” he said.
“In Virginia, for more than 400 years, we have set high ideals about freedom and equality — but we have fallen short of many of them,” Northam said.
“It’s time to acknowledge the reality of institutional racism, even if you can’t see it. Public policies have kept this reality in place for a long time. That’s why we have been working so hard to reform criminal justice laws, expand health care access, make it easier to vote, and so much more,” he said, adding, “But symbols, symbols matter, too, and Virginia has never been willing to deal with symbols until now.”
He noted Virginia has more Confederate memorials than any other state.
“That’s true because generations ago, Virginia made the decision not to celebrate unity, but to honor the cause of division,” he said.
Northam noted that Lee himself did not want a statue of himself erected. The one in Richmond was erected 20 years after his death, during an era when Jim Crow laws also were starting to be enacted.
“That statue has been there for a long time, but it was wrong then and it is wrong now, so we are taking it down,” Northam said.
Northam directed the Department of General Services to remove the statue “as soon as possible.”
Other speakers at the press briefing in Richmond included Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney; Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax; Attorney General Mark Herring; Robert Johns, a relative of Barbara Johns, who at age 16 led a protest against school segregation; Zayana Bryant, who as a high school student in Charlottesville petitioned for the removal of that city’s Lee monument; and the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, a descendent of Gen. Robert E. Lee who has spoken out against white supremacy.
Lee said people have made an idol to white supremacy and racism out of his ancestor and the statue should be removed.
“Today, the world is watching. Because of the death of George Floyd, because of the death of so many other people at the hands of oppression and racism and violence and white supremacy and police brutality, we are here to show that we can and must be different,” Lee said.
Stoney has said he will introduce an ordinance July 1 to remove other Confederate monuments in the city.
“It’s time to heal…Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy…It’s time that we embrace our diversity,” he said during the briefing.
“We have two pandemics in this country — COVID-19 and racism; both are lethal, especially for black and brown people,” Stoney said.
Northam said he knows many will be angry about the statue’s removal, but said, “My friends, I believe in a Virginia that studies its past in an honest way. I believe that when we learn more, we can do more…When we take that honest look at our past, we must do more than just talk about the future; we must take action.”