Correction: Earlier versions of this article mistakenly said Robert E. Lee was born in Alexandria. He was born in Stratford, in Westmoreland County, and moved to Alexandria at an early age.
The city of Alexandria has quietly removed a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that hung on the wall of the City Council chambers for 54 years, relocating it to the Lyceum, a local history museum.
Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) called the museum “a more appropriate place” for the large painting of Lee, who grew up in Alexandria and went on to command the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
Like a similar portrait of George Washington, it was taken off the wall last summer as crews repaired the City Hall roof, and then cleaned and repainted the room. But when it was time to rehang the art, the Lee portrait was replaced by a 1798 map of the city. The Washington painting was returned to the wall.
“I don’t think any of us got a single email or call about it,” City Manager Mark Jinks said. He said he called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who donated the painting to the city in 1963, to inform them of the change.
The decision was another step in the national reconsideration of Confederate tributes that began with a 2015 mass shooting at an AME church in Charleston, S.C., by an avowed white supremacist who had been photographed with a Confederate flag.
South Carolina has since removed the flag that flew at its statehouse for more than a half-century. Confederate battle flags have disappeared from license plates in Georgia and Virginia, and Confederate statues were taken off public land in New Orleans, Kansas City, Mo., Maryland, Florida, Ohio and elsewhere.
“With all that’s going on in the country, with statues and all that, I think [the museum] is where it belongs,” City Council member Willie Bailey (D) said of Lee’s portrait. “That’s where history is.”
Alexandria, the first Southern town to be occupied by Union troops, has a fraught relationship with its 19th-century past. After the shooting in Charleston, the city government stopped its longtime practice of flying the Confederate flag at Washington and Prince streets on Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day.
The City Council then voted to move a statue of a Confederate soldier from that intersection to the front lawn of the Lyceum museum. But Virginia law prohibits the relocation of certain Civil War monuments, and state lawmakers from Alexandria said last year was the wrong time to seek special permission from Richmond to move the statue.
This past summer, after a white-supremacist rally to protest the relocation of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville turned deadly, state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said he would introduce a bill in 2018 to allow the Alexandria monument’s relocation.
Last week, noting a wave of Democratic victories in the Nov. 7 elections, Ebbin predicted that new members of the Virginia General Assembly “may be more open to considering the merits of allowing the statue to be moved.”
Leaders of a historic Episcopal church in Alexandria decided last month to remove a pair of plaques from its sanctuary that memorialize Washington and Lee, two of its most prominent parishioners.
Also this fall, a hotel on King Street removed a plaque that had been bolted to the wall of the building for decades and gave an incomplete account of the first war-related deaths after the Union invaded Alexandria on May 24, 1861. The marker, posted in 1929 by the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans, memorialized the first Southerner killed by the Union, without saying he had first shot and killed a Northern colonel on the property.
The Alexandria City Council faces another Confederacy-related decision next month, when it is expected to vote on what to rename its portion of Jefferson Davis Highway, also known as U.S. Route 1. A citizens group is pushing for Richmond Highway, as did a plurality of people in a nonscientific, online Washington Post survey last year.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said that when Jinks and Silberberg asked the council’s opinion about removing the Lee portrait, he suggested replacing it with a rotating display of people from all eras who were important to the city, including people of color.
“I’ve always been of the opinion . . . that part of the challenge we have is we only tell part of history, and we need a broader portrait and time period,” Wilson said.
The oil-on-canvas portrait, painted by George Bagby Matthews in the late 1800s, is now part of a museum exhibit on Alexandria during the Civil War. A label next to the portrait outlines Lee’s life and quotes him as saying, “There is no community to which my affections more strongly cling than that of Alexandria, composed of my earliest and oldest friends, my schoolfellows, and faithful neighbors.”