The colossal bronze of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, honoring the general who led the South against the Union Army in the US Civil War, had become an unlikely site of pilgrimage. For the hate groups that uphold its white supremacist legacy, Lee’s likeness is an aspirational symbol. But for Black Lives Matter activists, the statue’s reclamation and transformation last year – through graffiti, projections, performances, and other activations — marked a historic moment in the nation’s reckoning with racial violence.
As of this morning, September 8, the 60-foot statue will no longer tower over Richmond’s Monument Avenue. In videos shared online, a crane hoisted the massive equestrian sculpture from its pedestal as crowds chanted, “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”
“After 133 years, the statue of Robert E. Lee has finally come down — the last Confederate statue on Monument Avenue, and the largest in the South,” said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in a statement. “The public monuments reflect the story we choose to tell about who we are as a people. It is time to display history as history, and use the public memorials to honor the full and inclusive truth of who we are today and in the future.”
Last summer, during historic protests prompted by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black individuals by police and vigilantes, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of several Confederate statues on the boulevard.
But the Lee monument stayed put. Though Governor Northam had announced its removal over a year ago, separate lawsuits filed by a group of Richmond residents who own property nearby and by William Gregory, a descendant of signatories to the 1890 deed for the statue, stalled the action in court. Last Thursday, the Virginia Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of taking down the sculpture.
Another notorious monument to Lee was also dismantled this summer: a statue of the general whose planned removal sparked the lethal white supremacist riots in Charlottesville in 2017 finally came down in July.
According to a statement from Northam’s office, Monument Avenue’s Lee statue will be placed in storage at a state facility “until a permanent, appropriate location is chosen for its display.”
It remains to be seen whether the sculpture’s pedestal, almost entirely covered in spray-painted messages and considered a pivotal work of protest art, will remain on Monument Avenue. Last December, in partnership with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Northam launched a community effort to reimagine the boulevard, including funding new public art to “shine light on previously untold stories.”
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