House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is ordering the removal of four portraits in the U.S. Capitol of former Speakers of the House who served in the Confederacy, something she said would be done on Friday, which is Juneteenth.
The move comes as Congress debates how to respond to the killings of Black Americans by police and amid ongoing protests over racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd. His death and the recent deaths of other Black Americans have led to widespread discussions over removing Confederate statues across the country – including in the halls of the Capitol – and renaming military bases named after Confederate military leaders.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when people in Texas, including 250,000 enslaved people, were told slavery was over, some two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Pelosi, at her weekly news conference, said she wrote a letter to House Clerk Cheryl Johnson requesting the removal of portraits of the four former House Speakers, who all served in the 1880s, because “there’s no room in the hallowed halls of this democracy, this temple of democracy to memorialize people who embody violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy.”
“You have to see the marks that they had made, how oblivious they were to what our founders had in mind in our country,” Pelosi said. “We must lead by example.”
The portraits depict Robert Hunter of Virginia, who served as Speaker from 1839-1841, Howell Cobb of Georgia, who was Speaker from 1849-1851, James Orr of South Carolina, who was Speaker from 1857-1859, and Charles Crisp of Georgia, who was Speaker from 1891-1895.
In the letter, Pelosi wrote that Orr “swore on the House Floor to ‘preserve and perpetuate’ slavery in order to ‘enjoy our property in peace, quiet and security’ ” and that Hunter “served at nearly every level of the Confederacy.”
She said the portraits “are symbols that set back our nation’s work to confront and combat bigotry.”
The tradition of collecting portraits of House Speakers began in 1852 and since 1910, the House has required itself to acquire oil portraits of every speaker. Each since 1910 has had a portrait made, and the House commissioned pictures of speakers who had already died.
The current Speaker of the House has control over the portraits and former Speaker’s have made similar moves to have portraits taken down, including Republican Paul Ryan who ordered the removal of the portrait depicting Dennis Hastert in 2015, after Hastert pleaded guilty to breaking banking laws in a hush-money scheme.
Many protesters and activists have demanded the removal of Confederate statues and renaming of military bases honoring Confederate military leaders, and Republicans have expressed some openness while President Donald Trump denounced such ideas entirely.
“These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars,” Trump tweeted about renaming military bases. “Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Trump did not address the issue of Confederate generals, but rather focused on the legacy of the facilities themselves, listing three bases in the South named for generals in the Confederate army.
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