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Virginia set to remove Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue, its largest Confederate monument

Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Va. (Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons)
September 07, 2021

A 131-year-old Robert E. Lee memorial statue, which served as both a symbol of Confederate heritage and the unofficial ground zero of racial-equity demonstrations in Virginia’s capital last summer, will be taken down Wednesday after the Virginia Supreme Court cleared the path for the state to remove it.

Tuesday evening, crews from the state Department of General Services will install protective fencing around the traffic circle where the statue is located, and the city of Richmond will enforce no-parking zones along Monument Avenue.

The removal will begin around 8 a.m. Wednesday, when crews will remove the plaques from the 40-foot pedestal and lift the 12-ton, 21-foot statue of Lee on a horse from atop the pedestal. DGS said the statue will be taken to a state-run storage facility, where it will be kept until a decision on its disposition is made. Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has said it would seek public input on the statue’s future.

Robert E. Lee Monument in Richmond, Va. (Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons)

The pedestal, tagged with graffiti from the 2020 protests, will remain in the traffic circle for now, DGS spokesperson Dena Potter said. Richmond and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are working on a project to reimagine Monument Avenue, so the pedestal will stay at least until that plan is developed.

“We are taking an important step this week to embrace the righteous cause and put the ‘Lost Cause’ behind us,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in a statement. “Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy. We are a diverse, open, and welcoming city, and our symbols need to reflect this reality.”

Residents say goodbye

Picturesque Labor Day weather brought people to the traffic circle to get one last look at the statue. Some took pictures, while others just stopped to take in the scene.

Brian Grogan, who lives near the statue, took photos for the Historic American Buildings Survey, a Library of Congress initiative that has been documenting U.S. history since the 1930s.

Under a canopy near the statue sat members of BLM RVA, which has renamed the traffic roundabout the Marcus-David Peters Circle in honor of a Black man who was shot to death by Richmond Police in 2018 while he was in the middle of a mental-health crisis. Killings such as that, as well as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement, were the catalysts for protests in Richmond and nationwide last year.

“We are happy to see that this symbol of oppression is going to be taken down, but there’s a lot more work to be done in Richmond and a lot more work to be done in the United States,” said Lawrence West, CEO of BLM RVA. “We have dedicated ourselves to not only this work, but that work, too.”

West said his group would like to see the traffic circle become a place of healing. Several group members created a unity garden in the circle as well as a second garden at a Richmond church several blocks away. BLM RVA has been stationed at the traffic circle providing food, water and other resources to anyone who needs it, West said.

Removal livestreamed

Many Confederate symbols across the South have been removed without public announcement to avoid drawing demonstrators, but Virginia officials have set up a protected viewing area on Monument Avenue just east of the statue in anticipation of large crowds. The removal will also be livestreamed on Northam’s Facebook page and Twitter.

“Virginia’s largest monument to the Confederate insurrection will come down this week,” Northam said in press release. “This is an important step in showing who we are and what we value as a commonwealth.”

Potter said the street closures and parking restrictions will be in place “until all items are removed from the site and it is safe to reopen.” Drones have been banned within a 2-nautical-mile radius of the statue until 11:59 p.m. Thursday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Lee statue was considered the crown jewel in a parade of Confederate memorials on Monument Avenue for more than a century. It was the only one owned by the state.

Northam announced the Lee statue would be removed in June 2020 amid the nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of Floyd’s death. The removal was delayed after residents filed a lawsuit opposing the move, but the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled last week the monument could be taken down.

More than a dozen other memorials owned by the city of Richmond were removed shortly after the General Assembly passed a law allowing localities to decide how to deal with Confederate monuments on public property.

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