The new statue should acknowledge the state’s history of slavery, expose the injustices of institutional racism and honor those who fought for equality, McEachin and Wexton wrote.
“Having Robert E. Lee represent us in the Capitol is not an accurate depiction of the commonwealth of Virginia today,” Wexton said in an interview. “Nor is it an accurate description of the entirety of our history. There’s so much more to Virginia than the Confederacy.”
Northam spokesman Alena Yarmosky said in a statement that the governor is on board with the idea.
“This is something the governor has long wanted to do — he is looking forward to working with the congressional delegation and members of the General Assembly to get it done this year,” the statement said.
Northam spent much of the year focused on reconciliation after the revelation of a racist photo of a person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan garb on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
Republicans generally have opposed bills to give localities the right to relocate Confederate statues but have yet to consider legislation addressing the Capitol’s Lee statue.
Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin) called the proposal from McEachin and Wexton “unbelievable yet predictable” and sarcastically wondered what they might want to overhaul next.
“And while they are at it, they should wheel out the marble George Washington statue,” Stanley said. “What’s next? Are he and Wexton going to ask Ralph to knock down the old [Virginia] Capitol building because it was designed by Thomas Jefferson? Geesh.”
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) and Virginia GOP Chairman Jack Wilson did not respond to requests for comment Monday about the proposal to remove the Lee statue.
Two other states are in the process of replacing Confederate and Civil War-era statues in the U.S. Capitol with ones honoring civil rights and cultural icons.
Arkansas will swap statues of Uriah Milton Rose, an attorney who backed the Confederacy, and James P. Clarke, an Arkansas governor who held racist beliefs, with civil rights leader Daisy Bates and music legend Johnny Cash.
Florida is replacing a statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with one of civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.
McEachin and Wexton suggested replacing the Lee statue with monuments to African Americans who they say would better represent the commonwealth. Options include Nat Turner, leader of an 1831 slave rebellion; Oliver Hill, an attorney and civil rights activist from Richmond who helped end the doctrine of “separate but equal”; and Barbara Johns, who led a walkout of her segregated school and helped bolster the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
“Our state is not just a monochrome state. We are multicultural, and we deserve to be represented in such a fashion in a statue,” McEachin said. He and Wexton said their preference would be Hill because of his civil rights work and Richmond roots.
The Lee statue is one of 13 representing the original colonies in the Crypt, a large circular room on the first floor of the Capitol below the Rotunda. (The statue of Washington is in the Rotunda.)
In their letter, McEachin and Wexton note that the prime location is a regular stop for most Capitol tour groups and “serves as a prevalent reminder of Virginia’s disturbing racial legacy.”
Virginia donated the bronze statue of Lee, in his Confederate uniform and holding a hat at his side, in 1909, when similar monuments were erected across the country in a movement called the Lost Cause.
The statues sought to rebrand the South’s secession as patriotic and Lee, a slave owner and Confederate general, as a reluctant war hero who selflessly served his home state. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War from 1862 until its surrender in 1865.
Wexton said targeting the Lee statue in the U.S. Capitol didn’t occur to her until she was elected to Congress and was “living and breathing it every single day.”
With Republicans in control of the General Assembly, bills to remove Confederate statues have always failed along party lines. But next year could be different.
According to the Architect of the Capitol, after a state passes legislation agreeing to replace a statue, the governor must explain where the old statue will be displayed in the state and formally request the statue swap.
The Joint Committee on the Library, an administrative committee made up of House and Senate members, will approve or deny the request.
Guidelines say statues must be seven to eight feet tall, made of marble or bronze only, and should represent a deceased U.S. citizen “illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services.”
If the plan is approved, the state must pay to design, construct, transport and place the new statue as well as remove and transport the old one — costs that Wexton said could be covered by private donations.