The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northam vows to fight temporary injunction against removing Robert E. Lee statue

The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday vowed to fight a temporary injunction from a Richmond Circuit Court judge that prevents the state from immediately removing the statue of Robert E. Lee that towers 60 feet above this city's Monument Avenue.

“We’ve been preparing for this for a year,” Northam said in a news briefing. “This is a statue that is divisive; it needs to come down and we are on very legal solid grounds to have it taken down.”

Northam (D) announced plans last week to remove the bronze figure of the Confederate general from its granite base and put it in storage amid protests in Richmond and across the country against police brutality toward African Americans. Late Tuesday, protesters brought down another statue in the city, that of Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park.

Preparations began Monday, when state surveyors used a bucket truck to examine the figure and the city prohibited parking on the street around it through Friday. But efforts came to an abrupt halt with the judge’s ruling Monday night, which prevents any further action for 10 days.

Richmond Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo granted a temporary injunction sought by William C. Gregory, who contends in a lawsuit that the state promised to “affectionately protect” the statue when it annexed the land it stands on from Henrico County. The suit identifies Gregory as a great-grandson of a couple who were signatories to the deed.

State officials said they received no notice of Monday’s hearing on the injunction and did not know about it until calls started coming in from the news media. Governor’s counsel Rita Davis said the court was not required to give the administration a chance to respond but added that in most ­cases — such as recent suits filed against Northam’s pandemic-related shutdown of businesses — “we have been afforded that opportunity. But we were not this time.”

The statue is on state property that was annexed from Henrico in 1890. 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., argued in a court filing Monday.

“His family has taken pride for 130 years in this statue resting upon land belonging to his family and transferred to the Commonwealth in consideration of the Commonwealth contractually guaranteeing to perpetually care for and protect the Lee Monument,” the suit states.

Blackburn emailed a copy of the order to The Washington Post on Monday evening but did not respond to requests for comment. Another lawyer from his Richmond-based firm — Blackburn, Conte, Schilling & Click — said Tuesday that they would not discuss the case, but issued a statement pointing out that they had also offered pro bono representation to several people arrested in the recent protests.

Richmond mayor joins protesters, apologizes after city police gassed a peaceful demonstration

The traffic circle around the Lee statue has become the focal point for 12 days of demonstrations against racial injustice, and its granite base is covered with graffiti. Four other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue are on city property. Mayor Levar Stoney (D) and members of the Richmond City Council have said they will back removal of those statues under a law passed this year by the General Assembly that gives localities power over war memorials on their own property.

In the capital of the Confederacy, a new monument and a chance to change the narrative

Davis, the governor’s counsel, said she would work with the office of state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) to ensure that there is a hearing on the Lee injunction as soon as possible.

“We were well aware of the potential legal challenges, and also well aware of the governor’s legal authority to do this,” she said, adding that the governor was prepared to take the issue to the Supreme Court of Virginia if necessary.

In Byrd Park late Tuesday, a few dozen people gathered to look at the statue of Columbus submerged in Fountain Lake. “I’m not going to say I approve, but I’m not going to say I disapprove either,” said Ronald Johnson, 33, a call center supervisor who has marched five nights in the city over the past 12 days.

Johnson was with at least 100 people at the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — which Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has said he plans to put in storage — when word spread that the Columbus statue has been torn down. A “massive cheer” went up, he said, and he drove over to Byrd Park to see it for himself.

John McDonnell contributed to this report.

Retropolis: When Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue arrived in Richmond in 1890, it was greeted by 10,000 admirers

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news