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Richmond judge halts removal of Robert E. Lee statue for 10 days

A crew from the Virginia Department of General Services takes measurements as they inspect the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond on Monday.
A crew from the Virginia Department of General Services takes measurements as they inspect the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond on Monday. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — A Richmond judge on Monday temporarily blocked Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam from removing a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from the Monument Avenue traffic circle where it has stood for 130 years.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley B. Cavedo granted a 10-day 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.

Northam (D) announced plans to remove the monument and put it in storage last week amid protests in Richmond and across the country against police brutality toward African Americans. The state appeared to be preparing to move forward with the removal this week, with “no parking” signs posted nearby and neighbors notified that work was expected to begin in the coming days.

Northam says Virginia will remove Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond

The 14-foot equestrian statue and its 50-foot base stand atop land annexed from Henrico County in 1890. In the deed recording for 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.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced on June 4 plans to remove a statue commemorating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. (Video: VPM/YouTube)

“Our administration is still reviewing the order,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “Governor Northam remains committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia’s capital city, and we’re confident in his authority to do so.”

Blackburn emailed a copy of the order to The Washington Post on Monday evening but did not respond to requests for comment.

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According to the website of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, preparations for the memorial began when Lee died in 1870, but drawing up plans, selecting a sculptor and finding a site took the better part of 17 years. Eventually, the city annexed 292 acres from Henrico County to put the statue on what had been a baseball field on the edge of tobacco farms.

Northam has supported the removal of the statue since the deadly “Unite the Right” white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, but he had long deferred to local sentiment. He did not say exactly when removal would take place.

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Preparations appeared to be underway for the removal this week, as the city posted signs along Monument Avenue warning that it would be temporarily closed to parking from 5 p.m. Monday until 5 p.m. Friday. Several residents reported that authorities had been going to houses and explaining that the state was making preparations to move the statue, though it was unclear whether the authorities were from the city or the state. A state inspection crew was on site Monday, taking measurements of the statue.

Lee’s statue is the only one of the five Confederate figures along Monument Avenue that is owned by the state. The other four are owned by the city of Richmond. City Council members and Mayor Levar Stoney (D) pledged last week to remove those.

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

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