RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WAVY) — A towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee will be removed as soon as possible from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday, pledging the state will no longer “preach a false version of history.”
The bronze equestrian statue, which sits on an enormous pedestal on state property, will be moved to storage while Northam’s administration works “with the community to determine its future,” the governor said at a news conference where the announcement was met with extended applause.
“Today, we’re here to be honest about our past and talk about our future,” Northam said. “I’m no historian, but I strongly believe that we have to confront where we’ve been in order to shape where we are going. In Virginia, for more than 400 years, we’ve set high ideals for freedom and equality, but we’ve fallen short of many of them.”
“You see, in Virginia, we no longer preach a false version of history, one that pretends the Civil War was about ‘state rights’ and not the evils of slavery. No one believes that any longer,” Northam said. “We can no longer honor a system that was based on the buying and selling of enslaved people. Not in 2020.”
BELOW: Full press conference.
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 for nearly 9 minutes while he pleaded for air.
The decision also came a day after Richmond’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.
“Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy … we have known better,” Stoney said Thursday. “We knew better during Jim Crow. We knew better during Massive Resistance. And we knew better long before the dying pleas of young black men like George Floyd … It’s time to do better.”
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 monuments’ fate.
That includes the confederate monument in Downtown Norfolk. The city is planning a public hearing for July 7 to discuss moving the 80-foot-tall monument.
“Symbols matter, too, and Virginia has never been willing to deal with symbols until now,” Northam said. “Today, Virginia is home to more confederate commemorations 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.”
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 can’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, Lee’s 21-foot (6-meter) sculpture rises atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall on a grassy circle 200 feet (about 61 meters) in diameter.
Northam noted the enormous size of the monument in his remarks Thursday.
“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” he said. “Think 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.”
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 “Stonewall” 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 statue’s removal, calling it a symbol of “hate, bigotry and division.”
“We are now walking into a new era of acceptance, respect and inclusion,” he said.
A descendant of Lee’s brother, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, also endorsed the monument’s removal, saying at the press conference that his line of the Lee family “wholeheartedly” commends the governor’s decision.
“Friends, 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,” he said. “To those of you who might be hedging your bets that this is not the time to do this, when will be the right time? When will it be right to address the white supremacy and racism that we have made an idol of my uncle out of?”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring released a statement on the removal of the monument, saying he has long called for removal of “racist Confederate iconography from public spaces.”
“These grandiose monuments memorializing a racist insurrection do not belong in our public spaces. They do not deserve to stand as a representation of our commonwealth and our people. The way we tell our history as a people influences the way that each of us view our role within our society,” the statement reads, in part.
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.
“The Governor’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,” Senate GOP leaders said in a statement.
Senate GOP leaders also rebuked state senator and GOP gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase, who called the decision an “an overt effort here to erase all white history.”
They called Chase’s comments “idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory.”
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 “safely and effectively.”
To read the governor’s full remarks, click here.