RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam made a historic announcement today — the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond will be removed.
This comes after six days of protests in the city against racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Northam said these demonstrations put 400 years of pain felt by African Americans in focus.
In a press conference on Thursday, Northam said he has asked the Virginia Department of General Services to remove the statue as soon as possible.
“It was wrong then and it’s wrong now,” Northam said today. “So, we’re taking it down.”
Northam said the statue will be taken down and stored as he collaborates with the community on what its future will be. The governor touched upon the history of the monument, saying that Lee never wanted a statue but Virginia put one up anyways.
“I strongly believe we have to confront where we have been in order to shape where we are going,” Northam said. “Make no mistake, removing a symbol is important but it’s only a step. It doesn’t mean problems are solved, there are still monuments of inequities that exist in our commonwealth.
Gov. Northam was joined by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax for the announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time…it’s time to put an end to the lost cause and fully embrace the righteous cause,” Stoney said. “We have two pandemics in this country, COVID-19 and racism. One is six months old, the other 400 years old.”
Stoney said recent incidents have made it painfully clear that both pandemics are lethal.
“We need to show that black and brown lives matter,” Stoney said. “That is our moral duty.”
On Wednesday, Stoney said he and 9th District Councilman Michael Jones would introduce a resolution to remove all Confederate statues from Monument Avenue on July 1, when cities and counties will be able to take down statues on their property under Virginia law.
During the 2020 General Assembly, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation giving local government the authority to remove or relocate Confederate monuments. The Virginia House voted 53-46 to pass its bill after the Senate voted along party lines to advance its own.
“I know Richmond is going to do the right thing,” Northam said.
Northam also spoke to the uniqueness of the Lee statue — in both size and legal status. The statue, imported from France in May 1890, towers over tree-lined Monument Avenue in the City of Richmond, standing six stories high and weighing 12 tons.
“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up. Think about the message that this sends,” Northam said.
A descendant of General Robert E. Lee, Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, said he supports the removal of the statue in Richmond, saying that Virginia has the chance to face its painful truth and address it.
“We have created an idol of white supremacy,” Rev. Lee said.
Asked what he would say to other ancestors of confederate veterans who see taking down statues of as an erasure of their history, Rev. Lee IV said, “I don’t see it as an erasure at all. I see it as the time to do what’s right.”
Lt. Gov. Fairfax, who will be celebrating the 222nd anniversary of his great grandfather being freed from slavery on June 5, spoke about what the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue means for generations to come.
“I’m proud that my 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son will not grow up in a Virginia and in a world that does not value them, that their lives will be put on a pedestal,” Fairfax said.
About 220 public memorials to the confederacy still stand throughout the state.
Zyahna Bryant, the student who wrote a petition in 2016 calling for the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, said dismantling these symbols is important but it’s merely one step towards a new history.
“I want to be clear that there will be no healing or reconciliation until we have equity, until we have fully dismantled the systems that oppress black and brown people,” Byrant said. “The only way we can move forward is if we center the voices of the people who are the most marginalized.”
Northam said the first step in removing the monument is to talk to contractors about removing the bronze from the statue in the coming weeks.
“Do we put another monument on top of the pedestal?” Northam questioned, adding that discussions will continue on what to do.
Some of Virginia’s Republican leaders have already spoken out against Northam’s decision to remove the Lee monument. In a statement sent to media following the governor’s announcement, Virginia Senate Republican Leadership said:
“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. And because of this Governor’s personal history, the motivations of this decision will always be suspect. Like Senator Chase’s idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory response, his decision is more likely to further divide, not unite, Virginians.”
On Wednesday, Senator Amanda Chase responded on Facebook to Mayor Stoney’s announcement about a resolution to remove all Confederate statues from Monument Avenue.
Chase said in a Facebook video, “…We should add to the monuments that are there… Let’s be honest here. There is an overt effort here to erase all white history. That’s what they’re looking at doing… We need to be respectful of everybody’s culture and how everybody feels about these monuments… I think it’s very racially insensitive and racist in itself not to respect the history of all Americans… It’s very disturbing to me that once again – that this Democrat new majority… They want the First Amendment for them, but they’re not going to allow any differences of opinion. It’s all about shoving this down people’s throats and erasing the history of the white people. And I think that’s wrong… It’s freedom of expression. It’s a First Amendment right…”