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A Virginia Museum May Take Ownership of the US Capitol’s Robert E. Lee Statue

The recommendation to move the Confederate general’s monument to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture was made unanimously by the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol.

The National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol (photo of the Architect of the Capitol via Wikimedia Commons)

The Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond may become the new permanent home of a Robert E. Lee statue currently in the Capitol building in Washington, DC. The recommendation to move the Confederate general’s monument to the museum was made unanimously by the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol during a meeting on August 7.

Last month, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall; it must now be voted in the Senate. Located in the south wing of the building, the collection includes 100 statues contributed by 50 states, two statues each. The statues representing Virginia — the state that has had the largest cluster of confederate monuments throughout history — commemorate General Robert E. Lee and George Washington.

The statue of Robert E. Lee in the National Statuary Hall (photo by Ken Lund via Flickr)

This Commission for Historical Statues was created by the General Assembly this year after Congressman A. Donald McEachin of Richmond and Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton of Northern Virginia asked Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to replace Lee’s statue with one of an African American leader.

On July 31, Virginia governor Ralph Northam sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol requesting the removal of Lee’s statue. The Commission, he said, “determined that the Robert E. Lee statue does not tell Virginia’s full and true history and it does not represent the values of the Commonwealth.”

“I commend and support the Commission’s decision to promptly remove this relic from the halls of Congress and replace it with a new statue that embodies the inclusive Virginia we aspire to be,” Northam wrote.

During the August 7 meeting, commission member and former president of the University of Richmond Dr. Edward L. Ayers made a motion to recommend the VMHC as a potential home for the statue. 

“It’s a statewide museum that’s done a remarkable job of broadening and deepening its representation of Virginia’s history and shown itself to be an excellent steward of Virginia’s past,” he said, adding that the museum had both the “institutional capacity” and “curatorial expertise” to deal with the sculpture.

The commission’s next steps include confirming whether the museum can take ownership of the statue and holding a public hearing on the subject of its replacement. The VMHC has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

According to a memo prepared for the Commission, the General Assembly approved funding for the Lee and Washington statues in 1903, but was met with pushback from Union veterans’ groups, delaying their installation until 1909. The idea for a Lee sculpture came from a 1902 speech by former Union cavalry officer Charles Francis Adams II, a white supremacist who embraced the Reconciliation Movement, which sought to downplay Black participation in the Civil War.

The planned removal of the Capitol’s Lee statue has coincided with controversy surrounding a monument to the same Confederate general still standing on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. When he attempted to have the bronze removed, Governor Northam was met with resistance from Judge Bradley Cavedo, who cited two pending lawsuits. (One of them has since been dropped, and Cavedo has recused himself from the remaining lawsuit, citing his home’s proximity to the monument.)

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