RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — There is a bare spot in Richmond’s Capitol Square where a statue of Harry F. Byrd Senior used to stand.
Byrd, a vocal segregationist, most notably served as Virginia’s governor and as a U.S. Senator for more than three decades.
The Virginia Department of General Services temporarily closed a portion of the Capitol grounds “for safety reasons” on Wednesday morning while contractors remove the privately-funded monument, a process that took several hours.
According to DGS, the 10-foot bronze statue, its base and an informational plaque are all being kept in storage off site until next steps are decided.
Gov. Ralph Northam said possible replacements are still being considered.
“Whatever we do, we want it to embrace diversity and inclusiveness in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Northam said.
Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), who is Black, sponsored the bill to remove the statue in the 2021 session.
“These symbols make me feel less than human,” Jones said.
The push was prompted by Byrd’s role as the architect of “Massive Resistance” in the late 1950’s. The policy cut off state funding and forced the closure of schools that attempted to integrate Black and White students.
It came in response to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional.
According to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Byrd also promoted the “Southern Manifesto” opposing integrated schools, which was signed by more than one hundred southern congressmen.
“My father was denied entry to an elementary school a mile away from where we grew up because of Harry Byrd’s policies. That’s not who we are, that’s not what we reflect and so today is yet another step in our journey to tell our true history,” Jones said.
Some historians consider Byrd an “idol of the conservative business community.” He was a career Democrat though he later broke with his party as its position on civil rights was shifting. According to the Library of Virginia, after 1944, Byrd stopped endorsing Democratic presidential nominees altogether.
The bill to remove his statue won bipartisan support in the General Assembly, especially in the state Senate where only three Republicans opposed the removal. The legislation saw more opposition in the House of Delegates, where the vote was 63-34.
Republican Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier), who voted against the bill, called Byrd’s support for segregation an embarrassing stain on an expansive legacy. On the Senate floor, she recalled his key role in starting the state’s highway system and transforming transportation funding with his “pay-as-you-go” process.
“He was a man of a certain time and a certain era,” Vogel said. “So I would just ask the members of this body to look at the whole man because we are each the sum of all of our parts.”
Sen. David Suetterlein (R-Roanoke) was among the Republicans who supported taking down the statue. He focused on Byrd’s spearheading of Massive Resistance in his floor speech.
“It wasn’t just a quick reaction to the Brown decision. He calculated, waited, called for this aggressive posture and then assembled thousands of people at Capitol Square…to try to force the General Assembly and the Governor down this path,” Suetterlein said. “He was not simply a man of his time. There were folks openly defying him.”
Republicans have generally opposed previous efforts by the Democrat-led legislature to remove controversial monuments throughout Virginia and at the State Capitol, calling it an erasure of history.
In 2020, the General Assembly gave localities the authority to remove Confederate monuments. Some did so before the legislation took effect due to pressure from protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Later that year, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn unilaterally directed the removal of several Confederate busts from the Old House Chamber overnight.
Democrats also led a push to replace the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the U.S. Capitol. An effort to remove a towering, state-owned monument to Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue is still tied up in court.