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Virginia Supreme Court clears way for Lee statue in Richmond to come down

Virginia Capitol Police oversee the installation of a fence surrounding the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond in January. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — The Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for the state to remove the colossal statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue in Richmond.

In unanimous rulings in two separate cases, the justices affirmed the power of Gov. Ralph Northam to order the 60-foot statue removed from state-owned property.

A small group of nearby residents and a descendant of the family that granted the property to the state more than 130 years ago had filed suit in Richmond Circuit Court last year after Northam (D) called for the statue’s removal. The statue had become the centerpiece of racial justice protests in Richmond and a symbol of the nationwide movement that was triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police.

Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, has removed several Confederate monuments, including statues of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. (Video: The Washington Post)

The suits failed, but the plaintiffs appealed to the state’s high court.

In rejecting the descendant’s appeal, the justices found that the man had no property right to assert against the governor. In the case of the property owners, the justices found that requirements built into the 1890 deed giving the site to the state, as well as language adopted by the General Assembly in 1889 authorizing the accepting of the property, no longer bind the state to preserve and protect the monument.

The justices wrote that “those restrictive covenants are unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees.”

The General Assembly voted last year to change state law to make it easier for localities to take down Confederate memorials, and later passed specific language disavowing the Lee statue.

While the justices said the merits of the statue are a matter for political leaders to decide, they agreed with the state’s argument that it represents “an unapologetic statement regarding the continued belief in the virtue of the ‘Lost Cause’ and in the Confederacy’s pre-Civil War way of life, including the subjugation of people of African descent.”

They noted that many discriminatory policies passed during the era in which such statues were erected have also been swept aside by courts, such as laws barring African Americans from owning property in certain neighborhoods.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous win for the people of Virginia,” Northam said in a statement Thursday. “Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value. When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), whose office argued the case on Northam’s behalf, hailed the rulings. “Today is a historic day in Virginia. With this decision, we can turn the page to a new chapter in our commonwealth’s history — one of growth, openness, healing and hope,” Herring said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), head of the General Assembly’s Legislative Black Caucus, said he first learned that something had happened when he got a cryptic text from Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer.

“He said it was a great day in the commonwealth, and I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Bagby said. Once Herring called and explained, Bagby said he hastily threw on a tie from his truck and made it to the news conference, where he couldn’t suppress a big smile.

“I shouldn’t say it, but the bigger they are, the harder they fall — and the harder it is to get them down,” he said.

Patrick McSweeney, the primary attorney for the landowners, declined to comment and said he had to consult with this clients.

While they could slow the statue’s removal by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, Herring urged them not to. “I really hope that the parties in the case and the lawyers representing them see the strength and the power in the decision . . . and not delay it further,” he said.

There was no evidence Thursday of removal activity at the graffiti-covered statue, which has been fenced off since the beginning of the year. State officials said work was likely to begin no sooner than early next week and would take several days to complete. State and law enforcement officials have prepared an extensive public safety plan, one official said, partly because contractors have received death threats in other cases where Confederate statues were coming down.

That plan will involve street closures and coordination among various law enforcement agencies, the official said. The work is likely to be conducted under strict security, but the official said efforts are being made to ensure the public will be able to view it safely.

“This is an extremely complex removal that requires coordination with multiple entities to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” the state’s Department of General Services, which will oversee the effort, said in a written statement. The department said the public can monitor plans on Twitter and Facebook at @VAMonument2021.

The plan calls for removing the figure of Lee and his horse, Traveller, but leaving the giant stone base of the monument in place for now. Once the figure comes down, state historians will remove the time capsule that was placed in the base when the monument was constructed and replace it with a new one. The state solicited contributions for the new time capsule over the summer.

The fate of the pedestal remains uncertain. The General Assembly approved Northam’s plan to create a commission, led by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to reimagine public spaces all along Monument Avenue.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney had four other memorials to Confederate figures removed from city-owned property on Monument Avenue last summer.

Lawrence West, 38, a protest organizer and head of the group Black Lives Matter RVA who had come out to the statue on a near-daily basis to call for its removal, heard the news of the court’s ruling on social media Thursday morning.

“I jumped up — I was like, yes! We won,” West said. By 10 a.m. he had rushed down to Monument Avenue and was sitting alone on a folding chair, staring at the Lee monument, waving at passing drivers who honked in support.

“I always knew it was going to come down, I just didn’t know if it would come down in my generation,” he said.

Defenders of the statue were not in evidence Thursday, as police cars sat idling on side streets. A spokesman for the Virginia Flaggers Confederate heritage group issued a statement on Facebook that he was “disappointed” that the justices sided with Northam’s “rabid monument destruction agenda.”

Through the afternoon, passersby stopped to greet West and a handful of Black Lives Matter supporters.

“Did y’all do this?” Phyllis Hunter, 71, called out to them cheerfully, gesturing at Lee. “My hat’s off to you — congratulations!”

Janice Hall Nuckolls, who lives on Monument Avenue in sight of the Lee statue, said she was relieved by the court’s decision.

“If feels a little anticlimactic, since this is what we have been expecting and waiting for,” said Nuckols, who is White. She added that she hopes the state will eventually take down the graffiti-
spattered base of the monument, as well, and come up with something fresh.

“The base will be forever linked to the Lee monument, no matter how much paint is on it,” she said. “Having to start with that would be like being given a canvas to paint but being told to work with the painting that has already been started by someone else. And it’s not a good painting.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the dates of the General Assembly resolution and the deed giving the Robert E. Lee statue site to the state. The GA resolution was in 1889, and the deed was in 1890. The article has been corrected.

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