The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Confederate memorials quietly removed from Virginia Capitol overnight

Workers roll a bust of Stonewall Jackson past a statue of Robert E. Lee in the Old House Chamber inside the Virginia Capitol in Richmond on Thursday. The Confederate figures were removed under orders from House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax). (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Workers wielding power tools and huge rolls of bubble wrap carted a life-size statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee and busts of seven of his Confederate colleagues out of the Virginia Capitol late Thursday night and early Friday morning.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) ordered them removed from the historic Capitol’s Old House Chamber, the room where rebel lawmakers met when Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy.

“Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants,” Filler-Corn said in an emailed statement, condemning the Confederate ideology as based on maintaining slavery. “Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth’s whole history.”

She announced the formation of an advisory group to propose new types of memorials for the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol building.

The removals, under darkness and in secrecy, eliminated symbols that had largely escaped the recent public outcry over monuments to racial repression. Richmond’s Capitol Square has been tightly guarded over the past month and a half as protesters have gathered in the streets, night after night, spray-painting statues around the city and toppling some with ropes.

With the state locked in a court battle over Gov. Ralph Northam’s plans to take down a grand statue of Lee on the city’s Monument Avenue, Filler-Corn took a page from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s playbook and simply acted without announcing it first. Stoney has removed more than a dozen Confederate memorials around the city, though a court injunction has prevented him from getting rid of one remaining statue, of Gen. A.P. Hill.

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Also Friday, a commission appointed by Northam (D) voted to remove the state’s statue of Lee on display at the U.S. Capitol. Speaking in the group’s online meeting, Northam encouraged the commission to recommend a different figure to stand alongside Virginia’s other representative in Statuary Hall: George Washington.

“We can come together and choose a statue of someone who better represents the inclusive and diverse state that Virginia is now,” Northam said.

He didn’t address the figures taken out of the state Capitol. House Clerk Suzette Denslow had informed him of the pending actions Thursday in a hand-delivered letter. A spokeswoman said Northam is focused on getting Lee off state property on Monument Avenue, “and then he will work collaboratively with the General Assembly on next steps for the Capitol grounds.”

Filler-Corn had clued in only a handful of colleagues in Democratic leadership and worked with Denslow to arrange logistics. The House hired a Pennsylvania company to handle the move but would not disclose the name of the company, the cost of the work or where the sculptures were being taken for storage.

The removals took place late at night to prevent disruptions and keep the workers safe from any potential protests, Filler-Corn’s office said. A few reporters were allowed to watch part of the process under an agreement not to publish until it was complete Friday morning.

Filler-Corn said her role as speaker gives her authority over decorations and furnishings in the House-controlled parts of the Capitol. Republicans, caught off guard, questioned her reasoning and said House rules do not specifically grant her that power.

“Those who fear the scrutiny of their judgment and challenges to their authority execute consequential decisions in the dead of night,” Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and five other top Republican senators said in a joint statement. They called Filler-Corn’s action an “arrogant and unaccountable” effort to “dismantle, destroy, and conceal objects that recall the history of Virginia.”

By 9 p.m. Thursday, busts of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee (who served as governor of Virginia 20 years after the Civil War) and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart sat on pallets near a back door of the Capitol, ready to be crated and loaded onto a waiting truck.

Workers upstairs in the Old House Chamber lifted a bust of Confederate navy leader Matthew Fontaine Maury and set it onto a dolly. With Denslow and a Capitol Police officer looking on, the workers rolled the dolly out into the rotunda and past the famous Houdon statue of George Washington, with cardboard sheets taped down to protect the black and white stone floor tiles.

Also up for removal were busts of Stonewall Jackson, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens. In addition, workers took down a plaque honoring Thomas Bocock, who served as rebel speaker of the House.

At one point workers began removing a plaque beneath a bust of Andrew Lewis, before someone pointed out that the frontiersman was not on the list.

By far the most challenging task was removing the figure of Lee, a 900-pound bronze that stood on the spot where he accepted command of Virginia’s armed forces in 1861. That one came down last, around 4:30 a.m. Friday, Filler-Corn spokesman Jake Rubenstein said.

Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House minority leader, said Friday that he was “perplexed” by Filler-Corn’s decision to take down the Lee statue.

“Unlike the Lee monument on Monument Avenue, this statue is a historical marker,” Gilbert said in an emailed statement. “Another historical reality is that the Capitol building itself served as the Confederate Capitol, a fact that should no doubt force the Speaker’s new Advisory Group to recommend that it be razed to the ground.”

Most of the sculptures were installed long after the Civil War ended. Lee was erected in 1931 after a campaign led by former governor Harry Flood Byrd Sr. The large marble busts of Davis and Stephens went up in the 1950s, gifts of the states of Mississippi (Davis) and Georgia (Stephens).

The earliest bust was that of Stuart, given to the state by the general’s family in 1872.

Filler-Corn appointed Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond) to head what she said would be a bipartisan advisory board to decide what to do with the vanquished figures and recommend new memorials in the House-controlled parts of the Capitol.

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the head of the Black Caucus, said he applauded Filler-Corn’s action.

“Generations of Virginians, Americans and visitors from around the world have been greeted by these imposing symbols of treason and white supremacy for far too long,” he said via email, adding that the painful history should be acknowledged but not celebrated.

‘A powerful story’: How freed slaves helped shape Virginia after the Civil War

Plenty of other historic events happened in the Old House Chamber, where delegates met until the Capitol — completed around 1788 — was expanded in 1904 with the addition of two wings housing new legislative chambers.

Chief Justice John Marshall presided here over the treason trial (and acquittal) of Vice President Aaron Burr in 1807. In 1870, a trial for a Richmond mayor accused of scandal drew so many spectators that an upstairs courtroom collapsed into the House chamber, killing 62 people and injuring 251.

Virginia’s secession convention met in the chamber in 1861. Just six years later, after the capital fell, free blacks met here with whites to draw up a new state constitution under Reconstruction. The state’s first African American delegates met here — until Jim Crow laws pushed them out of power for nearly a century more.

Today the room is a museum, outfitted with the small wooden desks of long ago. It houses the golden mace used to ceremonially begin each day that the House of Delegates is in session. And Thursday night, a copy of an engraving depicting the state’s first black lawmakers stood on a stand in the front of the chamber, looking on as the physical remains of the Confederacy were hauled away.

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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