RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Thursday that one of the country’s premier monuments to the Confederacy, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee along Richmond’s prominent Monument Avenue, would come down as soon as possible.
The Democratic governor directed the statue to be moved off its massive pedestal and put into storage while his administration seeks input on a new location.
Many black activists and lawmakers have long called for the statue's removal and cheered the news.
“That is a symbol for so many people, black and otherwise of a time gone by of hate and oppression and being made to feel less than," said Del. Jay Jones, a black lawmaker from Norfolk. He said he was “overcome" by emotion when he learned the statue was to come down.
The move comes amid turmoil across the nation and around the world over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, even after he stopped moving.
Floyd's death has sparked outrage over issues of racism and police brutality and prompted a new wave of Confederate memorial removals in which even some of their longtime defenders have decided to take them down.
The Lee statue is one of five Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential street and National Historic Landmark district in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. It has been the target of graffiti during protests in recent days over Floyd's death, including messages that say "end police brutality” and “stop white supremacy.”
In Thursday's press conference, Northam said the Lee monument was unique from other monuments, because of its size, prominence and unusual state ownership.
Northam said this state ownership was part of a plan to keep the monument, which was built 20 years after Lee's death and against his express wishes, up forever.
"Lee himself didn't want a monument, but Virginia built one anyway," Northam said. "Lee once said, 'I think it is wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavor to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.'"
A descendant of the Lee family, Reverend Robert W. Lee IV, agreed that this statue of his great-great grandfather had become a hurtful symbol.
Rev. Lee said that it was time for the statue to come down - and as a Christian, he wanted to see the idol that Robert E. Lee's statue had become, removed.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney joined Northam for a news conference Thursday. Stoney said he would move ahead with plans to remove the other remaining Confederate statues along Monument Avenue. Those include statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gens. Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.
Many of the statues in question are on land owned by Richmond.
"Richmond is no longer the capitol of the confederacy," Stoney said. "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."
Stoney said he would introduce an ordinance July 1 to have the statues removed. That’s when a new law goes into effect, which was signed earlier this year by Northam, that undoes an existing state law protecting Confederate monuments and instead lets local governments decide their fate.
“I appreciate the recommendations of the Monument Avenue Commission – those were the appropriate recommendations at the time. But times have changed, and removing these statues will allow the healing process to begin for so many Black Richmonders and Virginians,” Stoney said prior to the news conference. “Richmond is no longer the Capital of the Confederacy – it is filled with diversity and love for all – and we need to demonstrate that.”
Other tragedies in recent years have prompted similar nationwide soul searching over Confederate monuments, which some people regard as inappropriate tributes to the South's slave-holding past. Others compare monument removals to erasing history.
Confederate memorials began coming down after a white supremacist killed nine black people at a Bible study in a church in South Carolina in 2015 and then again after a violent rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.
Bill Gallasch, president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, said he worried the statues' removal would change the “soul” of the street, hurt tourism in Richmond and stir up violence between far-right and far-left groups.
The monument removal plans also drew criticism from the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“We’re allowing the mob to dictate what will and will not be in the public domain," said B. Frank Earnest, a spokesman for the group.
But Joseph Rogers, a descendant of enslaved people and an organizer with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, said he felt like the voices of black people are finally being heard.
“I am proud to be black, proud to be Southern, proud to be here right now,” he said.