It is a landmark decision in a state with more Confederate memorials than any other and in a city that reveres its history.
"I believe in a Virginia that learns lessons from the past, and we all know that our country needs that example right now," Northam said. "America is once again looking to Virginia to lead."
At first only the 14-foot bronze equestrian statue will go. The giant stone base will remain, at least for a while, as a very different kind of monument. Covered with graffiti from this week's demonstrations — "blood on your hands," "how much more blood," "hold cops accountable" — it blares a rage against racial injustice that the elegant statue was designed to silence.
Northam said officials are discussing what to do with the base, whether to clean it, whether to install another statue atop it. He said he would seek public input.
“Lee himself didn’t want a monument, but Virginia built one anyway,” Northam said at a news conference announcing his decision. Although much policy has been enacted in Virginia to chip away at systemic racism, the presence of Confederate statues in prominent places was a daily rebuke, the governor said.
“Symbols matter, too, and Virginia has never been willing to deal with symbols. Until now,” Northam said. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now, so we’re taking it down.”
Lee’s is the most prominent in a procession of five Confederate statues along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, and the only one owned by the state. Northam said his counsel’s office has been studying the legality of its removal for about a year. But he was inspired to make the call as protests escalated, peacefully, on Tuesday.
“As a physician, I can recognize pain. There’s tremendous pain,” said Northam, a pediatric neurologist. The demonstrations that have spanned the country, touched off by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, are just the latest sign that the pain can’t go on, he said. “It’s a time for Virginia and it’s a time for this country to heal.”
Richmond’s own leaders have hesitated over the fate of the statues. A majority-black city with a young African American mayor, the former capital of the Confederacy has struggled to reconcile the conflicting elements of its past.
As Northam noted Thursday, Patrick Henry made his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech a few blocks from what would become the second-busiest slave market in the nation.
So it might seem unlikely that Lee would ultimately fall at the command of a white governor who saluted a statue of Stonewall Jackson every day as a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, and who almost resigned last year over a blackface scandal.
But when Northam opted to stay in power, disavowing a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook but admitting he wore blackface at a dance party that year, he pledged to devote his term to fighting racial inequity.
His words Thursday echoed his words then. “Today we’re here to be honest about our past and talk about our future,” he said. “I strongly believe that we have to confront where we’ve been in order to shape where we’re going.”
Republicans in the General Assembly attacked Northam’s decision as “not in the best interests of Virginia” and said it would only inflame divisions.
“Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail,” wrote a half-dozen senior GOP state senators, led by Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). “And because of this Governor’s personal history, the motivations of this decision will always be suspect.”
Confederate enthusiasts have long defended Richmond’s icons, and some in the city expressed concern about possible reprisals. But on the Facebook page of the Virginia Flaggers heritage group, outrage was tempered by resignation.
“At least move them to Hollywood Cemetery and maybe they will be safe, maybe,” one commenter said. “Honestly at this point . . . Move them to save them,” said another. Someone else urged people to call the governor and demand that Virginians be able to vote on the issue.
Standing alongside Northam for his announcement was the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, the fourth great-nephew of the general, who has crusaded against idolizing his famous ancestor.
“The fabric of our nation is really at risk, and I choose to be on the right side of history, unlike the side my uncle was on,” he said, calling the statue “a symbol of our moral pain.”
Robert Johns, 68 — whose late sister, Barbara Johns, helped integrate schools as a 16-year-old student in the 1950s and has her own statue in Capitol Square — said the removal of Lee’s likeness was overdue.
“Though we have so much work to do, it is a great start,” he said.
He and others cautioned that the death of a symbol can never make up for the centuries of discrimination that have left African Americans more likely to die young, be incarcerated or face economic hardship.
“I want to be clear that there will be no healing or reconciliation until we have equity,” said Zyahna Bryant, 19, a University of Virginia student who started a petition seeking the statue’s removal when she was a 16-year-old high schooler in Charlottesville.
Speaking at Northam’s announcement, she paid tribute to the demonstrators who have marched tirelessly for the past week, and those who came long before.
“Without a little bit of inconvenience, without a little bit of making people uncomfortable, we wouldn’t be here,” Bryant said. “Lives are on the line. Our future is on the line.”
Lee’s might not be the only statue to fall. This year the General Assembly passed, and Northam signed, a law allowing localities to decide the fates of war memorials on their own property. That law takes effect July 1.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said this week that he will submit an ordinance to the City Council seeking the removal of the other four figures along Monument Avenue.
“It’s time to put an end to the Lost Cause and fully embrace the righteous cause,” Stoney said Thursday. “It’s time to replace the racist symbols of oppression and inequality . . . with symbols that represent and summon the best in all of us.”
Later, hundreds gathered again at the grassy, 100-foot traffic circle around the Lee statue. Water and snacks were available at a table on a shady median. Bullhorns came out, fiery speeches cranked up once more.
On one side, Pauron Wheeler, a retired educator who is African American, mustered a lonely defense of the statue. He stood with a bullhorn and a sign reading, “Have mercy on descendants of Confederates.” “At West Point, they study him today,” he called out to the empty lawn before him.
On the opposite side, crowds gathered around Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, only the second African American elected statewide in Virginia since Reconstruction, who had arrived with Robert Lee IV.
Fairfax said Northam's decision was only a start. There are "living monuments" that also perpetuate inequity for minority citizens, he said — substandard schools, a health-care system that shuts out the poor, a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly incarcerates African Americans.
"Those are the monuments that we need to tear down next here in Virginia and in this country," he said. "Those are the monuments that carry oppression from generation to generation to generation."
Lee, wearing his clerical collar, brought cheers when he said: “Robert E. Lee is rolling around in his grave. And I say, ‘Let him roll.’ ”