Gov. Northam calls to remove Robert E. Lee statue ‘as soon as possible’

Protesters gathered Wednesday around the Robert E. Lee statue's removal from Monument Avenue. Photo by Hannah Eason

Hannah Eason, Managing Editor

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the Department of General Services will remove the statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue as soon as possible. The statue will go into storage until the community decides where to place it.

Northam made the announcement during a press conference on Thursday, following six days of protests in Richmond honoring George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody. He said when the statue came to Richmond from France in 1890, it was a symbol for Confederate sympathizers.

“Instead of choosing to heal the wounds of the American Civil War, they chose to keep them on display right here in Richmond,” Northam said. “They launched a new campaign to undo the results of the Civil War by other means. They needed a symbol to ensure the cause.”

The Lee monument is one of five state-owned Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. The General Assembly passed a bill in early March allowing Virginia localities to remove, relocate or alter memorials for war veterans. The law goes into effect on July 1.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is introducing an ordinance to remove state-owned monuments honoring Confederate leaders, according to a press release from the mayor on Wednesday. The Stoney administration will introduce the ordinance to city council along with Councilman Mike Jones on July 1.

Left, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and City Councilman Mike Jones address a crowd of protesters at the Robert E. Lee monument on Tuesday. Photo by Jon Mirador

“Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy,” Stoney said during Thursday’s press conference. “It is time to show our community how much love we have here. It’s time that we embrace our diversity. It is time that we remove barriers that hinder the dreams of black children in our community.”

The brother of civil rights leader Barbara Johns spoke at Northam’s press conference and said the Johns family was pleased the statue is being removed. At age 16, Johns led a march in Farmville to protest segregated schools. John’s protest and a similar march in Kansas launched the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which found racial segregation in public school to be unconstituitional.

“It is a symbol of hate, bigotry and division,” Robert Johns said of the Lee statue at the press conference. “We are now walking into a new era of acceptance, respect and inclusion. It is young people, a new generation, that are leading us.”

University of Virginia student Zyahna Bryant, a speaker during the conference, wrote a petition to remove the monument in 2016. She called for the dismantling of systems that oppress black and brown people.

“I want to be clear that there will be no healing or reconciliation until we have equity,” Bryant said. “The only way that we can move forward is if we center the voices of the people who are the most marginalized.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Amanda Chase called the removal “an overt effort … to erase all white history” in a Facebook livestream. Chase has started an online petition to stop the monument’s removal.

The Republican Party of Virginia tweeted a statement Thursday calling Chase’s remarks “idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory” and more likely to “divide, not unite.” The statement denounced Northam’s plans to remove the monument, stating it was not in the “best interest of Virginia.”

The Lee statue was built in France, and Northam said it required 10,000 citizens with rope to pull it to a tobacco field, which is now the prominent Monument Avenue.

When the 12-ton, six-story statue was unveiled, Northam said 150,000 people joined the event, many waving Confederate flags. 

“What do you say when a six-year-old African American little girl looks you in the eye and says, ‘what does this big statue mean, why is it here?’” Northam said.  “When a young child looks up and sees something that big and prominent, she knows that it must be important. And when it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message. This is what we value the most.”

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