The six-story-tall equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee has towered over Richmond’s Monument Avenue since 1890. Soon, it’ll be gone, replaced by empty sky.
“That statue has been there for a long time. But it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. So we’re taking it down,” said Governor Ralph Northam during a June 4 press conference.
The announcement comes after the death of George Floyd sparked a week of national protests against police brutality. Demonstrators in Richmond have targeted the Lee statue since the protests began, spray painting “Black Lives Matter” and other slogans across the statue’s base. When Richmond police tear-gassed peaceful protesters at the site on Monday night, the statue became an even more charged symbol of oppression.
Richmonders have re-contextualized other Confederate spots in the city as well—the United Daughters of the Confederacy building, just a few blocks from the Lee statue, was lit on fire on May 31, with the word “Abolition” written next to its steps.
Zyahna Bryant, the Charlottesville student activist who started the petition to remove Charlottesville’s Lee statue in 2016, spoke at Northam’s press conference on Thursday.
“I want to make space to thank the activists in Charlottesville who have put in decades of work to get us to where we are today,” Bryant said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Charlottesville, ground zero for the fight over Confederate monuments, could see its statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed later in the summer. This year, the General Assembly finally passed a rule allowing localities to remove their Confederate monuments. The law will go into effect July 1, and then City Council will have to vote on their removal, hold a public hearing, and offer the statues to any museums that want them—a total of 60 days worth of legislative hoops to jump through—before the monuments can legally come down. At an event in March, local activist Don Gathers said he thought it best not to schedule the removal ahead of time, so as to avoid any potential violence.
Richmond’s Lee statue, by contrast, sits on state property, and can be removed without public comment or review. Northam says the cranes will roll in “as soon as possible” and put the statue in storage.
Amanda Chase, the only Republican who has so far announced a 2021 run for governor, called Northam’s decision a “cowardly capitulation to the looters and domestic terrorists” that’s aimed at “appeasing the left-wing mob.” A statement from a collection of Virginia’s Republican state senators said the statue should remain where it is, but called Chase’s statement “idiotic, inappropriate, and inflammatory,” reports WSLS 10 News. (Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009.)
The Lee statue in Richmond is one of five Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. The other four, which Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Wednesday he also wants removed, are on land controlled by the city of Richmond. To take down those monuments, Stoney would have to follow the same process that’s required in Charlottesville.
Elsewhere in the country, many Confederate memorials have been torn down informally. People in Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, have toppled statues during demonstrations, and monuments have been spray-painted and otherwise altered in countless other cities. In Alexandria, Virginia, even the United Daughters of the Confederacy got in on the action, removing a statue of a soldier that it owns from one of Alexandria’s central streets.
“Make no mistake,” Northam said at the press conference, “removing a symbol is important, but it’s only a step.”
“I want to be clear that there will be no healing or reconciliation until we have equity,” Bryant said. “Until we have fully dismantled the systems that oppress black and brown people.”