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Mayor, Governor Announce Removal of Confederate Monuments

Protesters at Lee Monument
The Lee Monument has provided a focal point for protesters since last Friday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In a historic moment, Governor Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced plans today to remove all confederate statues from Monument Avenue.

Although Northam can order the state owned Robert E. Lee statue to be removed, Stoney must introduce legislation to Richmond City Council to remove the four other city-owned statues of confederate leaders. He and Councilman Michael Jones announced a plan to do so yesterday.

“Richmond is no longer the capital of the confederacy,” Stoney said. “It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality.”

Northam began his remarks with a history lesson, laying out the societal changes that came in tandem with the installation of the Confederate monuments. As Jim Crow laws disenfranchised Black voters, Black legislators lost their seats, and statues were erected - and laws were passed to prevent their future removal.

"Those laws ruled for more than a century,” Northam said. “But voting matters. And elections matter. And laws can be changed. And this year, with the help of the General Assembly, we changed them." This year, the legislature handed control over monuments to localities, which were not permitted to remove them before, even through a vote or political process.

About the majority of monuments, Northam said, "Local communities will decide. I know Richmond will do the right thing.” But because of the unique status of the Lee statue, which is owned by the state in city territory, he said he has directed the Department of General Services to remove it as soon as possible and place it in storage while the broader community decides what to do with it.

Northam said the statues were symbols of deeper problems, and removing them was a necessary first step toward ending systemic racism.

“It's time to acknowledge the reality of institutional racism, even if you can't see it, public policies have kept this reality in place for a long time. That's why we've been working so hard to reform criminal justice laws, expand health care access, make it easier to vote, and so much more,” Northam said. “But symbols, symbols matter too, and Virginia has never been willing to deal with symbols. Until now.”

People wearing masks in a circle
Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax (center) speaking with Robert W. Lee IV (right), a distant relative of Robert E. Lee, before Thursday's press conference. Lee was present to support removal of the statue dedicated to his distant uncle. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

Famously, Lee spoke out against being honored with a statue after the Civil War. A distant relative, the Rev. Robert Wright Lee, followed Northam to speak in support of removal. Speaking to moderates who might question the timing, Lee said, “To those of you who might be hedging your bets that this is not the time to do this, when will be the right time? When will it be right to address the white supremacy and racism that we have made an idol of my uncle out of?”

Other speakers included a descendant of Barbara Rose Johns, who at 16 led a student strike that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case ending segregation. Also at the podium were Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, and Zyahna Bryant, a student activist from Charlottesville.

Bryant, who petitioned Charlottesville to rename Lee Park and remove its monument to the Confederate general as a high school freshman, spoke last. She thanked activists and others who have been part of the work, but gave a message to state leaders.

“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. And the only way that we can move forward is if we center the voices of the people who are the most marginalized,” Bryant said, calling on state leaders to bring “Black women, Black LGBTQ folks, and undocumented community members” to the table.

Before the governor took a few questions, Bryant said, in closing, "I wanted to keep my remarks brief. But I certainly wanted to end them by saying, ‘Black lives matter.’"

The governor's full remarks are available on his website.

CORRECTION: Rev. Robert Wright Lee is a relative, not a direct descendant, of Gen. Lee. We have corrected this, and updated the story with a photo and quote from Lee.