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Statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee Removed in Virginia Capital

September 8, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Crews work to remove one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, Pool)

RICHMOND, Va. — A statue of General Robert E. Lee that has held a prominent place in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, for 131 years was taken down Wednesday morning.

Disputes over whether the statue is a symbol of racial injustice or an important historical landmark led to lawsuits that were resolved only last week.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that modern public opinions about the statue’s ties to racism were more important than any historical preservationist concerns, meaning Gov. Ralph Northam acted within his authority to order its removal.

“This was a long time coming, part of the healing process so Virginia can move forward and be a welcoming state with inclusiveness and diversity,” Northam said minutes after the 12-ton statue was hoisted by a crane from its pedestal on Monument Avenue to the ground.

It was cut into two pieces, loaded onto a truck and carried away to an undisclosed state storage facility.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Northam, a Democrat, said as hundreds of onlookers and demonstrators stood behind barricades at the site.

As the 21-foot high bronze statue was lifted at 8:55 a.m., some onlookers began singing a lyric from a 1969 song by the rock group Steam.

“Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye,” they sang.

The event was broadcast live on Facebook, where viewers posted comments that either lamented what they considered an affront to Virginia’s history or a victory for racial justice.

“Good night White pride,” one comment said.

It was followed by another posting that said, “This is a disgrace, a sad day for our country.”

A third wrote, “It isn’t American history. It’s Confederate mythology.”

The same differences of opinion played out in courtrooms after Northam ordered the statue removed.

They were resolved when the state Supreme Court ruled in two lawsuits by residents near the site of the statue that in a democracy “values change and public policy changes too.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring helped present the state’s case to the Supreme Court. Minutes after the statue was taken down, he stood nearby and said, “With the removal of this grandiose monument to a past that no longer represents who we are as a commonwealth, we can turn the page to a new chapter.”

The issue arose in June 2020, following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The Robert E. Lee statue became a focus of protests that erupted nationwide.

Northam announced days later the statue would be removed. Some Richmond residents and historical preservationists filed their lawsuits immediately afterward.

They argued that an 1890 deed and an 1889 General Assembly resolution prohibited the governor from removing the monument from state property. As residents of the area, they claimed property rights to enforce the deed, which required the state to maintain the statue perpetually.

The Virginia Supreme Court said former residents’ desire to memorialize the lost cause of the Civil War is not a contemporary concern.

“The Government of the Commonwealth is entitled to select the views that it supports and the values that it wants to express,” the ruling in the unanimous decision said.

The 40-foot pedestal that held the statue of Lee on his horse, Traveller, will remain while Richmond residents try to find a different use for it.

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