Lee had stood with George Washington since 1909 as Virginia’s representatives in the Capitol’s honorary hall, where every state gets two statues.
In place of Lee, the state commission has recommended installing a likeness of Barbara Johns, who as a 16-year-old in 1951 protested poor conditions at her all-Black high school in the town of Farmville. Johns’s court case became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down racial segregation in public schools nationwide.
“I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns’ contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did,” Northam said Sunday night in a news release announcing the pending removal of Lee.
The General Assembly will vote during its session that begins Jan. 13 on whether to authorize the statue of Johns, who died in 1991 at 56. Northam included $500,000 for the effort in his proposed state budget.
Some of Virginia’s congressional delegation — including Reps. Jennifer Wexton and A. Donald McEachin, both Democrats — had called for the Lee statue’s removal from the Capitol last year.
“This is a historic and long-overdue moment for our Commonwealth,” Wexton and McEachin said in a joint statement Sunday night. “The Robert E. Lee statue honors a legacy of division, oppression, and racism — a dark period in the history of our Commonwealth and our country. There is no reason his statue should be one of the two representing Virginia in the U.S. Capitol.”
Wexton and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) attended the statue’s removal, which took place around 3 a.m.
The figure’s downfall caps a tough year for the bearded general in his home state. National protests over racial inequity, touched off in May by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, led to a reckoning with Confederate symbols across the South but particularly in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.
In June, Northam ordered the removal of a giant statue of Lee on state property on the city’s Monument Avenue. While that is tied up in court after a handful of residents filed suit against Northam’s action, the figure has been transformed into a powerful symbol of protest through colorful graffiti and daily acts of civil disobedience around it.
Meanwhile, the city’s mayor ordered the removal of almost all other Confederate monuments in Richmond. And over the summer, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) had a life-size figure of Lee taken out of the Virginia Capitol. Lee’s name has also come down from schools and roads around the state, and even Washington and Lee University — where Lee is buried and served as president after the Civil War — is considering a name change.
In the nation’s capital, Lee had stood in the Crypt of the Capitol, where 13 statues commemorate the 13 original English colonies in North America. The figure will be relocated to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the change “welcome news” and said in a statement, “There is no room for celebrating the bigotry of the Confederacy in the Capitol or any other place of honor in our country.”
Virginia Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton), who serves on the eight-member statue commission, agreed.
“As of this morning, Virginia will no longer honor the Confederacy in the halls of the United States Capitol,” she said. “When I think of Barbara Johns, I am reminded of how brave she was at such a young age. It’s time for us to start singing the songs of some of the Virginians who have done great things that have gone unnoticed. This is a proud moment for our Commonwealth, and I am humbled to have been a part of it.”