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Judge hears evidence in suit blocking removal of Lee statue in Richmond

The letters for “Black Lives Matter” are projected onto the Robert E. Lee Statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond on June 18. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — A circuit court judge on Thursday heard evidence in a lawsuit attempting to block Gov. Ralph Northam from removing a statue of Robert E. Lee, the lone Confederate still standing on this city's famous Monument Avenue after protesters and the city's mayor did away with the rest.

Over the course of three hours, the great-grandson of a couple who donated land for the monument testified that removing the towering equestrian statue would be a “slap in the face” to his forebears. Historian Edward Ayers, testifying for the state, said the monument proclaimed a version of history that portrayed the Confederate general as “a great man” and the cause for which he fought — “a new nation based on slavery” — as just.

But the case could hinge on the drier topics that dominated most of the day — namely, whether the great-grandson, William C. Gregory, has standing in the case, and whether the issues at hand are matters of contract law or the real estate variety.

Saying the monument represents a “sensitive issue for many people in Richmond,” Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant said he needed time to consider all of the issues raised in court and announced that he would make a ruling in about a week. He also extended a temporary restraining order against removal for a month. That order could be dissolved or further extended, depending on his ruling.

Marchant took over for Circuit Court Judge Bradley Cavedo, who recused himself last week after acknowledging that his personal residence near the avenue could create an appearance of impropriety.

Immediately after hearing evidence in that case, Marchant held a hearing in a separate lawsuit brought by several Monument Avenue residents who contend the removal would hurt their property values. Marchant did not hear evidence or issue a ruling in that suit Thursday evening.

After weeks of enormous demonstrations, all four Confederate statues on city-owned property along Monument Avenue came down in June and July — one at the hands of protesters, the other three on the orders of Mayor Levar Stoney.

Marchant held a hearing earlier this week in a third lawsuit, filed by an anonymous plaintiff against Stoney over his removal of 14 Confederate statues and memorials, most of them in other parts of town. The judge indicated that it is unlikely the city will be forced to roll back its actions or replace the monuments.

But the judge also expressed deep skepticism in that hearing about Stoney’s unilateral decision to remove the statues, which began coming down on July 1 without the approval of the City Council and against the advice of the city attorney. Only a single Confederate statue remains on city property: a memorial to Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill, who is buried under the statue in a traffic circle on Richmond’s Northside.

“I think it’s pretty clear they didn’t do it right,” Marchant said of the city’s actions.

Northam to announce plans to remove Richmond’s iconic statue of Robert E. Lee

The Lee statue that’s the subject of the two other lawsuits is the oldest on the avenue and the only one owned by the state. Northam (D) ordered its removal in early June amid demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

Unveiled in 1890, the monument was an icon of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy and an anchor to the grand residential district built up around it. In modern times, it has been a hotly debated symbol of racial division.

Gen. Robert E. Lee is the only Confederate icon still standing on a Richmond avenue forever changed

In one of the lawsuits, Gregory contends that the state promised to “affectionately protect” the statue when it annexed the land it stands on from Henrico County. In the deed recording the land transfer, the state “guaranteed” to “hold said statue and pedestal and circle of ground perpetually sacred to the monumental purpose” and to “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it,” Gregory’s lawyer, Joseph E. Blackburn Jr., has argued in court filings.

On the stand Thursday, Gregory, a 69-year-old home builder, said he had an emotional connection to the statue, which he called a source of family pride. He said he visited it as a child and took his own children to see it as an adult.

He volunteered, under questioning from Blackburn, that he’s always had good relationships with African Americans. He recalled how a black farmhand he knew as a child, who continued working after losing fingers in an accident, was an “inspiration” to him.

Under cross-examination by lawyers for Attorney General Mark R. Herring, Gregory said that he considers flying a Confederate flag in modern times “a racist act” but that he did not see the monument in the same light because it’s “been up for 130 years.”

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