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General Assembly Votes to Remove Segregationist Statue

statue
The statue to former Virginia Governor and staunch segregationist Harry Byrd in Richmond's Capitol Square. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

A statue of former Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd is expected to be removed from Richmond’s Capitol Square.

The Senate voted 36-3 to approve the removal Tuesday afternoon, but not before Democrats and Republicans gave dueling accounts of Byrd’s life on the Senate floor. Byrd was a leader in the South’s fight against racial integration in the 1950’s and 60’s, known as the massive resistance movement. He also led the creation of Virginia’s modern highway system and was rumoured to be a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932.

Speaking on the floor, Republican Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Faquier) defended the former Democratic governor and asked lawmakers to consider the whole man, not just Byrd’s opposition to integration. Vogel asked that the Byrd statue be contextualized and left in Capitol Square.

“He was a man of a certain time and certain era, and he can be distinguished from others in Virginia whose stories are different, whose histories we view differently,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) immediately pushed back, saying that ignoring Byrd’s opposition to integration was like asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you enjoy the play?”

“The United States Supreme Court ruled under Brown v. Board of Education that you couldn’t have ‘separate but equal,’ which upset Senator Byrd,” Saslaw said. “As a result, over 100,000 students in Virginia were kept out of school for four years.”

The push to remove the statue of Byrd actually began with Republicans, not Democrats.

Del. Wendell Walker (R-Lynchburg) put forward the proposal last year as a sort of “gotcha” bill, betting Democrats wouldn’t vote to remove a statue to one of their own. Instead, Democratic Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk, picked up the bill this session, and it’s been hurtling toward passage.

In the House, the bill passed 63-35 with every Democrat supporting. Likewise the only three senators to vote against removal were Republicans. Republican candidates for governor Del. Kirk Cox and Sen. Amanda Chase voted to keep the statue of Byrd.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) was one of two Black women to speak from the Senate floor on Tuesday. She urged for the statue to be moved somewhere else and put in the proper context.

“When I was intern working for the first African American governor and walked past that statue every day, I knew I was [Byrd’s] worst nightmare,” she said. “I know it now. I feel it. Everytime I walk past it, I think about the damage he inflicted on this commonwealth and on the African American community.”

The bill will now go to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for a final signature.