Northam made the decision, which has been widely praised by black leaders and activists, after days of angry protests in Richmond and across the country over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck while he pleaded for air.
The decision also came a day after Richmondâ€™s mayor, Levar Stoney, announced he will seek to remove the four other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential street and National Historic Landmark district in the former capital of the Confederacy.
Together, the decisions mark a striking departure from recent years when even after a violent rally of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017 and other Confederate monuments started falling across the country, Virginia did not make the same changes.
In part, local governments were hamstrung by a state law that protects memorials to war veterans. That law was amended earlier this year by the new Democratic majority at the statehouse and signed by Northam. When the changes go into effect July 1, localities will be able to decide the monumentsâ€™ fate.
As for the Lee statue, Northam and his predecessor, fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe, have not previously pressed the issue.
McAuliffe said in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally, where a woman was killed after an avowed white supremacist drove a car into a crowd, that he lacked the authority to remove the statue without General Assembly approval. Some activists and attorneys, including staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, disagreed.
Northam, who canâ€™t seek reelection because Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms, said earlier this year that he was still studying the issue.
The statues on Monument Avenue are among the most prominent collection of tributes to the Confederacy in the nation.
Today, Leeâ€™s 21-foot sculpture rises atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall on a grassy circle 200 feet in diameter.
Northam noted the enormous size of the monument in his remarks Thursday.
â€œWe put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,â€ he said. â€œThink about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children.â€
Elsewhere on the broad avenue lined with mansions and tony apartments are statues to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas â€œStonewallâ€ Jackson and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury.
A statue of black tennis hero Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was erected on Monument Avenue in 1996.
The decision to remove the Lee monument has drawn condemnation from Confederate heritage groups and the leader of a Richmond group dedicated to preserving Monument Avenue. But it has been hailed by black lawmakers and activists, many of whom have long called for its removal.
Robert Johns, the brother of the late civil rights icon Barbara Johns, who as a teenager helped lead the push against public school segregation, said his family was pleased to learn of the statueâ€™s removal, calling it a symbol of â€œhate, bigotry and division.â€
â€œWe are now walking into a new era of acceptance, respect and inclusion,â€ he said.
A descendant of Leeâ€™s brother, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, also endorsed the monumentâ€™s removal, saying at the press conference that his line of the Lee family â€œwholeheartedlyâ€ commends the governorâ€™s decision.
â€œFriends, the world may be burning and the world is about to turn because we are going to let justice roll down, and this is the start of something incredible,â€ he said.
Leaders of the House and Senate GOP caucuses criticized Northam, whose decision on the statue marks his most visible action so far to make good on his pledge to devote his term to promoting racial equity after a scandal over a racist photo that appeared on his medical school yearbook page nearly forced him from office last year.
â€œThe Governorâ€™s decision to remove the Lee statue from Monument Avenue is not in the best interests of Virginia. Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail,â€ Senate GOP leaders said in a statement.
For years, when Republicans controlled the General Assembly, they blocked efforts to change the law protecting war memorials.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services, which Northam said would handle the removal, said Thursday planning is underway to ensure it is completed â€œsafely and effectively.â€