Virginia’s governor says a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee will be removed as soon as possible from Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
RICHMOND, Va. – The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that has towered over this Virginia city for more than 100 years will be removed “as soon as possible,” Gov. Ralph Northam announced Thursday.
The news came after days of protest surrounding the Lee statue and other Confederate monuments on the city’s Monument Avenue, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests against racial inequality around the country.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Thursday he would propose to the city council that the four other Confederate memorials be removed, too.
“Ladies and gentleman, it’s time. It’s time. It’s time to put an end to the lost cause and fully embraced the righteous cause. It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality,” Stoney said at a news conference Thursday.
“Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy,” he added.
On a mostly cloudless, hot and muggy day, demonstrations continued around the statue as cars drove by honking.
James Kelley, 29, works at Virginia Museum of fine Arts and has been attending the protests for several days.
“I see a lot of people that talk about history, and how important that is. At the same time, you got to remember the history of the other side, and those that were afflicted by people like Robert E. Lee, and those who fought for the Confederacy,” said Kelley, who wore a bright yellow bicycle vest marked with the words Justice for George Floyd.”
Northam said that the statue of Lee, owned by the state, will be placed in storage until there is community discussion to determine its future.
The four other Confederate statues on Monument Avenue are owned by the city, and a new state law goes into effect July 1 that allows localities to determine whether to remove their Confederate memorials.
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Asked about defenders’ argument of the history of the statue, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax told USA TODAY: “We don’t need to be bound by history, we should know it, but we don’t need to be bound by it and this history is a history of oppression is a history of excluding people from the promise that America makes to all its citizens.”
Northam acknowledged that the Lee statue was different than others on Monument Avenue and around the state. The statue stands six stories tall and weighs 12 tons atop a pedestal. The state’s ownership of the statue was part of an effort to keep the statue standing forever, Northam said.
“They needed the statues to remain forever – because they helped keep the system in place,” Northam said of Virginia’s leaders who erected the statue in 1890, 25 years after the end of the Civil War. Lee died in 1870.
People were gathered at the Lee statue shortly after Northam’s announcement Thursday, some protesting the decision, video on social media showed. The night before, a projected image of Floyd’s face shined on the monument, which has been spray painted with phrases like “Black lives matter” during the recent protests.
The debate over the Confederate monuments in Virginia has raged for years, and black activists and leaders have long said that they memorialize racist, slave-holding leaders of the Confederacy. Proponents of keeping up the statues say taking them down would erase history.
Northam said, however, that that argument props up a false narrative about the Civil War and state’s rights.
“Yes that statue has been there for a long time. But it was wrong then, and it is wrong now. So we’re taking it down,” Northam said.
Rondle Edwards, 87, a Richmond native who became the city’s assistant superintendent of schools, said that Lee’s statue would have never come down if not for the activism of young, white protestors.
“You’ve got young people who stopped listening to their racist mothers and fathers,” Edwards said. “[They’re] saying, ‘I can do this, I can do this myself.'”
Edwards was sitting outside the circle where the Lee monument stands, watching cars honk as they pass by and protestors crowd around the monument waving “Black Lives Matter” signs.
Confederate memorials can be found across Georgia. The state’s NAACP leaders want to change that.
After nine black church members were gunned down by a white supremacist in a South Carolina church in 2015, a renewed push to remove Confederate memorials arose around the country. That push gained more support in 2017 after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, fueled by the city’s proposal to remove Confederate statues there.
John Oat, 72, is a graphic artist who has been a resident of Richmond for over 30 years. He said he came out to reflect over the past racial violence plaguing the country.
“I think you’re gonna notice this change in 25, 30 years,” Oat said. “I think about the people who died needlessly and what we can do from here to make things better.”
In recent days, other cities around the U.S. have seen Confederate statues removed, either by protesters or by city officials, in the wake of the nationwide demonstrations spurred by Floyd’s death. Floyd, a black man, was killed when a white Minneapolis police officer held his knee to Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes as three other officers stood by.
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Jessica Phelps, 26, a nanny who lives on Monument Avenue half a block from the Lee monument, opened her home to protestors who needed a drink of water or access to a bathroom.
For the California transplant, the statue has always been an “overtly racist” symbol.
“I’ve looked at [the monument] and I’ve been like, why do I live here? Why do I look at this every day? Why is that there?” Phelps said. “If it’s offensive to me, how offensive is it to people who have had to look at that for so long and are people of color.”
Northam pledged that removing the statutes would signal a new day in Virginia for more work on addressing racial inequality in the state. The governor, who faced scandal in 2019 when a yearbook photo appeared to show him donning black face, has dedicated much of his remaining term on the issue of racial justice, including pushing legislation to remove Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday and creating a commission to address racist laws still on Virginia’s books.
“The legacy of racism also continues as part of a system that touches every person and every aspect of our lives – whether we know it or not,” Northam said. “So it’s time to acknowledge the reality of institutional racism, even if you can’t see it.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
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