RICHMOND — Workers have removed Virginia’s biggest statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from its towering stone base and cut it into two pieces, ending the monument’s 131-year reign embodying this city’s mythology as the former capital of the Confederacy.
The crowd roared and began singing, “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!”
Lowered quickly to the ground, the statue of Lee stood looking directly over at the crowd cheering and taunting him from behind barricades. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and other state officials stood looking on, along with Rita Davis, the former counsel to the governor who formulated the legal plan that led Northam to order the statue’s removal.
“I was always probably 90 percent sure we were going to get here,” said Davis, who is Black and attended Washington and Lee University.
A small group of residents filed unsuccessful lawsuits to protect the monument, and the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected their appeals last week and cleared the way for removal.
“Now I believe it. . . . It is wonderful to see,” Davis said, holding a big cigar moments after the statue was lowered to the ground. “I wish the people who came before me and paved the way for me could actually see this. Ultimately, goodness prevailed.”
The statue was on the ground by about 9 a.m., and by 10:45 a.m., workers had sawed off the torso of Lee and began loading it onto a flatbed truck. Hours later, in the early afternoon, the truck carrying Lee and the horse pulled away in a thunderstorm. It was efficiently methodical compared with the rage and joy that erupted last year when several other Confederate statues came down in Richmond.
“He went more quietly than some of the others did,” said Melody Barnes, who is Black and lives on Monument Avenue near the circle where Lee had stood.
Moments after the statue came off its base, JaPharii Jones, the head of BLM 757, broke through the barricades and ran around the traffic circle carrying a Black Lives Matter flag. Capitol Police quickly descended on the metal barricades to prevent more people from breaking through.
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) had just dropped her children at school and rushed to the site when she heard cheers go up. She ran to see, and a few minutes later, dripping with sweat, McClellan — who is Black — fought back tears.
“I keep thinking about when this statue went up, John Mitchell said . . . it’ll be a Black man that takes it down,” McClellan said, referring to a legendary Black newspaper editor from the Jim Crow era. “And then I saw the contractor take a picture in front of it,” she said, gesturing to Devon Henry, who is Black and oversaw the tricky logistical effort. “I think the healing can begin.”
Henry, 43, said the Lee statue was the 21st Confederate memorial he has taken down since last summer. It went quickly, he said, because his crew had a year to study images and had gained enormous experience removing others.
He, too, thought about the words of John Mitchell, he said. “That quote’s been sticking with me a long while, as I was going through planning this thing,” Henry said. “It’s definitely extremely meaningful.”
But after all the planning, and with so much at stake, his first reaction was simple: “I’m relieved,” he said.
For some local residents and Black Lives Matter protesters who have targeted the statue as a symbol of oppression since last summer’s social justice rallies, Wednesday morning was almost beyond belief.
“I cried when I saw it come down,” said Deja Spicely, 21, who had to sprint to the scene when she heard the cheers.
“This is just the beginning,” said her husband, Isaiah Robinson, 24. “Some of us have been coming out here every day, and the statue coming down is just the beginning. . . . The hard stuff comes now,” he said, referring to the need for racial equity throughout society.
Northam, first lady Pam Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney arrived on the site shortly before 8:30 a.m.
“This day has been a long time coming,” Ralph Northam said. “Things started back in Charlottesville in ’17 and evolved from there.”
The governor said he encouraged those who continue to defend the statue to go back and read the history of how it got there and what it represents. People such as Lee, he said, “chose to be traitors to the United States and fought against our Constitution to promote slavery.”
And he noted the era in which the Lee monument was built: By 1890, the first freedoms of Reconstruction had produced a flourishing Black society and economy in Richmond and elsewhere, but the White elites were pushing back.
The Lee statue was in the middle of a tobacco field at first, but the mansions of Monument Avenue went up over the next 30 years — along with four more Confederate memorials on the thoroughfare. That was the era of Jim Crow: In 1902, Virginia adopted a new constitution that repudiated the equities of Reconstruction and disenfranchised millions of Black voters. That legacy stood until the state’s current constitution was adopted in 1971.
The statues, Northam said, “were really a way to re-fight the Civil War.”
Northam has had his own personal reckoning with race, nearly resigning in 2019 after a racist photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page depicting someone in blackface and someone in Klan robes. He pledged to dedicate his time in office to fighting racial inequity and has since become outspoken about the need for social change.
“I think there are individuals who haven’t accepted that the South was fighting against the United States for the wrong reasons. The South lost that war, and they were fighting to protect the institution of slavery.”
The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol demonstrated that “we still have a lot of work to do,” Northam said. Taking down the statue “is a step in the right direction. That doesn’t mean everything is fixed. . . . We live in a diverse society. Look around you. That’s what makes us strong, and we need to embrace that.”
Security was tight for the statue’s removal, as state and local law enforcement closed streets for several blocks around the Lee traffic circle on Monument Avenue. Citing both security and safety — the statue had loomed 60 feet above the ground — authorities restricted public access to a small area across the street and urged people to watch the action online.
A group of Black Lives Matter protesters, many of whom had been an almost daily presence near the statue since last summer, had made it behind the police barricades and spent the night in front of an apartment building overlooking the Lee circle. Ahead of the statue’s removal, they played music, laughed and joked as the sun came up. As others discovered a route through an alleyway behind the building, the crowd grew.
“This is huge. . . . The stain of White supremacy is all over this monument,” said Lamonte Rigmaden, who drove an hour from Stafford to witness the removal. The 47-year-old Army combat veteran wore a shirt emblazoned with photos of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people killed by police.
“They should have strapped C-4 [explosives] to it,” he said as the statue made its descent.
Overnight, workers had cleared out makeshift memorials to victims of police violence from the grass and pavement around the statue’s base. State officials said the materials would be preserved. Concrete barricades and metal fencing had been removed from one side of the traffic circle, and work trucks parked on the grass below the monument.
As recently as two years ago, Confederate enthusiasts waving battle flags were a common sight around Richmond. A succession of Black mayors and Black-majority city councils dared not challenge Richmond’s Lost Cause iconography, and even the violence of 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally around a Lee statue in Charlottesville failed to change the landscape in Virginia’s capital.
Last summer’s social justice protests, triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, smashed the status quo. Rallies for racial justice quickly focused on the Lee statue as the most visible symbol of past inequities in perhaps all of the South. Protesters covered its stone base with a riot of graffiti condemning police violence and racial injustice.
Northam announced on June 4, 2020, that he was ordering Lee removed from the state-owned property. A handful of local residents challenged the action in court, and a judge temporarily blocked it. Though the residents lost their case, they appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which unanimously ruled in Northam’s favor last week, clearing the way for the removal.
During the delay, state officials used drones and cherry pickers to study the condition of the statue and the bolts holding it in place. They worked with historic preservationists and art experts to plan for the removal, which included tipping the two sections of the statue onto their sides atop layers of tires and wooden pallets to cushion them for transport.
The state plans to keep the statue in an undisclosed storage location until deciding what to do with it. Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said he had met last year with a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits and offered to explore seeking a new home for the statue, perhaps in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery or at the Appomattox Civil War surrender site.
But the plaintiff rejected the offer, he said. “So it’ll go in storage for a while,” Mercer said. “I don’t think from a public safety standpoint it would be a smart idea to put it back on display right away.”
Patrick McSweeney, the lead lawyer in a suit brought by a small group of local homeowners, said he has petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court to rehear some aspects of the case but declined to comment further. He said he knew nothing about Mercer’s earlier offer to help find a home for the statue and added that the person Mercer spoke with was not a plaintiff at the time.
In the meantime, the giant stone base will remain in place, though its plaques extolling Lee will be removed. The General Assembly has commissioned the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to gather input from experts and the public to come up with a new vision for the site and the Monument Avenue corridor.
After last year’s protests, the circle where Lee stands became an impromptu civic forum. Protesters planted a vegetable garden, put up a basketball hoop, gave speeches, staged concerts, registered people to vote and hosted cookouts on the lawn around the monument.
Residents, most of whom filed a brief with the state Supreme Court expressing approval for removing the statue, came to complain about the constant disruptions, which sometimes involved nighttime conflict between Black Lives Matter supporters and Confederate sympathizers and, not infrequently, the sound of gunfire.
Early this year, the state installed fencing around the traffic circle and blocked all access to the statue. Protesters dwindled in number, though a handful kept up a vigil in a median strip.
Almost all other Confederate memorials in Richmond have already come down. Protesters dragged former Confederate president Jefferson Davis off his pedestal last spring, and Stoney, Richmond’s mayor, quickly decided to get rid of three other Confederate monuments on city-owned property on Monument Avenue — Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury — along with several others around the city.
The only city-owned Confederate memorial still standing is a statue of Gen. A.P. Hill in an intersection on the north side of the city. Its removal is taking longer to plan because its namesake is buried, standing up, beneath the statue. The mayor’s office said it plans to ask the city council next week to agree to relocate the remains and monument to a cemetery in Culpeper, Va., at the request of Hill’s descendants.