The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia to dismantle pedestal where Robert E. Lee statue stood in Richmond

The 40-foot stone plinth is expected to be in storage by the end of the month, according to a state official.

The dismantled Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond is hauled away on a flatbed trailer on Sept. 8. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has agreed to take down the 40-foot granite pedestal that once supported the titanic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and became the heart of last year’s social justice protests.

Once the iconic, graffiti-covered plinth is gone — which is expected by the end of the month — the state will transfer ownership of the surrounding traffic circle to the city of Richmond, officials said Sunday.

The deal takes the circle out of the state’s hands a few short weeks before Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) takes office on Jan. 15. A spokesman for Youngkin has said he supported the statue’s removal but lamented the graffiti on the stone pedestal.

The pedestal will be preserved and put into storage by the state until a more permanent destination can be worked out, said Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam (D).

Robert E. Lee statue is removed in Richmond after months of protest and legal resistance

“Obviously the pedestal means a lot to a lot of people,” Yarmosky said. “The commonwealth is going to work with different folks — likely historians, the Department of Historic Resources — to figure out where it’s going to be put.”

Northam’s administration announced the agreement Sunday afternoon following negotiations with the city. The Lee circle was the only public property on Richmond’s Monument Avenue that belonged to the state.

Richmond city government issued a statement saying that it intends to accept the deed once the pedestal is removed.

“The future of the circle, like that of all Monument Avenue, will be determined through a thoughtful and community-rooted planning process,” the city said in a statement through Mayor Levar Stoney’s office.

The bronze equestrian figure of Lee had stood since 1890 until cranes brought it down on Sept. 8. Northam ordered its removal in June 2020 amid nationwide protests over racial inequity triggered by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been convicted of murder.

A small group of local residents filed suit to block the statue’s removal and took the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which ruled in Northam’s favor at the beginning of September.

In the meantime, the Lee statue — the grandest tribute to the Lost Cause on a boulevard lined with statues to rebel generals — served as the focus of protests in Richmond and a national symbol of the social justice movement.

The broad circle around it morphed into a round-the-clock civic forum, with speeches, gospel choirs, a vegetable garden, voter registration tents and even pickup basketball games at hoops hauled onto the grass. At night, though, the vibe often changed, with armed protesters sometimes engaging in conflict with Confederate legacy defenders. Residents reported hearing regular gunshots, but there were few injuries.

Protesters pulled down a statue of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis a few blocks away, and Mayor Stoney ordered the removal of about a dozen other memorials on Monument Avenue and around the city.

But the Lee circle was state property. Even security around the monument was the responsibility of the Capitol Police, who otherwise concentrated on Capitol Square about two miles to the east.

Eventually the state put concrete barriers and metal fencing all around the traffic circle, and police rousted overnight campers. Protesters — a small corps of whom continued to show up nearly every day — and nearby residents alike grew tired of the unsightly, walled-off landscape.

Northam and the General Assembly this year set aside some $11 million to create a commission to propose a new vision for the circle and all of Monument Avenue, but the transfer of ownership makes it unclear what will become of those efforts.

“This land is in the middle of Richmond, and Richmonders will determine the future of this space,” Northam said in a news release. “The Commonwealth will remove the pedestal in accordance with the City’s wishes, and we anticipate a safe removal and a successful conclusion to this project.”

Statue of Robert E. Lee is gone, but the mystery of the time capsule persists

A spokesman for Stoney said the mayor “appreciates the governor’s willingness to transfer this land back to city control. And because the Mayor believes Richmond deserves a clean slate when we take it, he supports the governor’s decision to remove the pedestal.”

Northam’s spokeswoman, Yarmosky, said the pedestal removal was at the city’s request, which Stoney’s office confirmed.

“We requested the state finish the job it started with the removal of Lee, as we are doing with our own pedestals. The Mayor believes that the pedestal, or parts of it, can and should be preserved in a museum, not preserved in the middle of a street/neighborhood,” Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said.

Yarmosky said the dismantling of the mammoth stone structure was slated to begin Monday and be completed by the end of the month. Officials hold out hope that they can find a time capsule that was reported to have been placed under the pedestal in 1887; a search for the relic under one of the cornerstones in October came up empty.

If the time capsule is found, it will become the property of the state Department of Historic Resources, Yarmosky said. A new time capsule placed under the pedestal in October will be temporarily removed and then restored to the site in the future, she said.