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Robert E. Lee’s statue removed from the Capitol

A statue of Robert E. Lee. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)
December 21, 2020

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is no longer on display in the Capitol’s collection.

The statue, donated by the state of Virginia and located in the Capitol’s crypt in Washington, was taken out in the early hours of Monday morning. He is expected to be replaced with a statue of Barbara Johns, who in 1951 led her Farmville, Virginia, classmates in a student strike protesting unequal education.

Sen. Tim Kaine posted a video Monday morning of the bronze Lee likeness being hoisted off his pedestal with chains and lowered to the ground at about 4 a.m. by Capitol workers. The stone pedestal he had been standing on was then loaded up and carted off as well. All that remained was a discolored square where the pedestal had been.

Kaine was joined by Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a fellow Virginia Democrat, to watch the statue be removed. Wexton called it “a historic and long-overdue moment for our Commonwealth.”

Virginia provided the Lee statue, created by Virginia artist Edward V. Valentine, to the National Statuary Hall Collection in 1909. Two statues are donated from each state to the collection, which had included 11 Confederates this summer.

Virginia’s General Assembly still has to approve the replacement before a sculptor can be commissioned, according to a statement from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. If approved, Johns’ statue would join George Washington as the second provided by the state, making her the only person depicted as a teenager, and one of only a handful of women in the collection.

When Johns was 16, she led a strike to protest conditions at R.R. Moton High School before securing NAACP support to file a lawsuit, Davis v. Prince Edward County, the largest and only case consolidated into the school segregation-ending 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that was initiated by students.

Amid unrest and a national reckoning with America’s racist past sparked by the deaths of Black people like George Floyd in the custody of police this summer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a June letter called for the Confederate statues to be removed.

The collection still includes several confederates, including Mississippi’s 1931 addition of Jefferson Davis and Georgia’s 1927 contribution of Alexander Stephens, the failed president and vice president of the Confederate States of America.

Pelosi praised the move in a Monday statement, noting that this year’s defense authorization bill also calls for the renaming of bases that were named for Confederates. President Donald Trump has cited this provision as one of the reasons he plans to veto the bill.

“The Congress will continue our work to rid the Capitol of homages to hate, as we fight to end the scourge of racism in our country,” Pelosi said. “There is no room for celebrating the bigotry of the Confederacy in the Capitol or any other place of honor in our country.”

Johns was selected by Virginia’s Commission on Historical Statues in the United States Capitol earlier this month to replace Lee.

The commission was created to study the removal and replacement of Lee this summer and had sought a replacement since July, when it voted that it was time for Lee to go. The panel requested the Lee statue to be relocated to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond.

Kaine celebrated the change in a statement Monday, saying the national push to remove statues honoring Confederates has been “notable in this year’s remarkable set of events, both tragic and uplifting, that would have been hard to fathom just one year ago.”

He noted the significance that Lee was being removed to celebrate Johns, who died in 1991.

“Johns fought for the very thing Lee fought against — the equality of every person. And the arc of this story shows both that ‘a little child shall lead them’ and that titular leaders of great advantage and education can fail to grasp basic moral truths,” he said. “Humbling and inspiring.”

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