Pelosi Directs Removal of 4 Capitol Portraits Honoring Confederate Officers

Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson, right, watches Thursday as Architect of the Capitol workers remove a portrait of James Orr of South Carolina that was hanging in the Speakers Lobby on Capitol Hill. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — One day before the nation marks 155 years since the end of slavery, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has ordered the removal of portraits that hang in the halls of the Capitol commemorating four leaders of the Confederacy.

“As I have said before, the halls of Congress are the very heart of our democracy,” she wrote Thursday to House Clerk Cheryl Johnson. “There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violet bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy.” 

The letter takes aim at portraits depicting Robert Hunter, Howell Cobb, James Orr and Charles Crisp — all former members of the Confederacy and House of Representatives. Some of these men, like Orr, had spoken on the House floor in support of the continuation of slavery, Pelosi noted.

Whereas Hunter served at nearly every level of the Confederacy, including as the rebellion’s Confederate secretary of state, his mark on the nation’s history was otherwise less distinct, she wrote.

This was also true, Pelosi said, of Cobb, who served as a colonel in the Confederacy, leading men who fought at the Battle of Antietam.

“Our Congressional community has the sacred opportunity and obligation to make meaningful change to ensure that the halls of Congress reflect our highest ideals as Americans,” she wrote. “Let us lead by example.” 

Earlier this month, Pelosi also urged the renaming of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate Army officers, as well as the removal from the Capitol of statues, such as one commemorating Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States.

After the portrait of her great-great-great grandfather Howell Cobb was taken down Thursday from the Capitol, Denise Rucker Krepp told Courthouse News she was relieved to see it taken down.

The former chief counsel for the U.S. Maritime Administration, Rucker Krepp has been writing about the need to remove Confederate symbols for years. She penned an op-ed on the topic five years ago in The Hill, and even wrote to Speaker Pelosi this past Wednesday to secure the removal of Cobb’s portrait. 

“I spoke up and out about because my grandfather was a traitor,” Rucker Krepp told Courthouse News in an email. “He took up arms against his country, and men, women and children died. I also spoke up because continuing to allow the portrait to remain in the U.S. Capitol implies that Congress endorses my grandfather’s bigotry and I couldn’t support that.”

Among those who say America should retire its Confederate memorials is Denise Rucker Krepp, descendant of Howell Cobb, former speaker of the Confederacy. In addition to statues and portraits, one of which depicts her ancestor, Krepp takes issue with this sign at the University of Georgia that celebrates the so-called “War of Southern Independence.” (Photo courtesy of Denise Rucker Krepp via Courthouse News)

Cobb, before becoming speaker, was one of the founders of the Confederacy and president of the Provisional Confederate Congress, making him the head of the Confederacy before its eventual president, Jefferson Davis, took office. 

Though satisfied the portraits were removed, Rucker Krepp said there is yet more work to do.  

“My grandfather was also the Coast Guard’s service secretary and so far, they haven’t banned the Confederate flag from the Coast Guard,” she said. “It’s upsetting because I’m a former Coast Guard officer and think they should.”

Reparations would be another way to make up for the sins of the past, she suggested. More visibly, though, Rucker Krepp said institutions like the University of Georgia should remove their signs that still refer to the “War of Southern Independence.”

“Equity occurs when we take action. And action requires an honest, painful assessment of the past 150 years,’” Rucker Krepp said.

A representative for Speaker Pelosi has not returned a request for comment. 

Pelosi’s latest move comes on the eve of Juneteenth, otherwise known as Emancipation or Freedom Day, which marks the arrival of Union soldiers on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the last remaining enslaved people in America had been freed. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation nearly three years earlier, but slavery remained in place until the Civil War ended in 1865.

The country’s lasting racial divisions have taken on additional importance in recent weeks as demonstrations have continued throughout the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, in Minneapolis police custody. Responding to the unrest, many officials have suggested formalizing the Juneteenth holiday or otherwise highlighting the day to soothe country in anguish.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said this week he would mark the day with a paid day off for state employees, making the state the second behind Texas to do so.

For Pelosi, the holiday “comes during a moment of extraordinary national anguish, as we grieve for the hundreds of black Americans killed by racial injustice and police brutality.” Her letter voices the names of several black Americans killed by police — Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — names that have become rallying cries for protesters in more than 140 American cities.

Denise Rucker Krepp, descendant of Howell Cobb, former speaker of the Confederacy, wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, June 17, requesting that Pelosi remove portraits of Confederate officials from the Capitol because they suggest that Congress endorses bigotry. (Photo courtesy of Denise Rucker Krepp via Courthouse News)

Senate Democrats also tried to banish Confederate monuments from the Capitol Thursday with a bill called the Confederate Monument Removal Act.

“There is a movement in America right now that demands we confront the poison of racism in our country,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer said from the Senate floor. “We must do this in many ways, both substantive and symbolic. This bill is just one of many steps we must take to acknowledge the painful history of America’s original sin — slavery — and to clarify for all generations that the men who defended it shall hold no place of honor in our nation’s history books.”

Republican Senator Roy Blunt objected to the motion, saying passage of the bill would “have the effect of abandoning agreements that we have entered into with the states and the states have entered into with us.”

“I’d certainly like to have some time to decide if we should have a hearing on this,” the Missouri senator said. “I’d like to get the opinion of people who are taking similar statutes out of the building. I’d also like to find out what other states have in mind as their part of their agreement.”

Courthouse News reporter Brandi Buchman contributed to this article.

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