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Richmond takes down South’s largest Confederate statue

The effort to remove the massive statue of Robert E. Lee came before Virginia’s highest court, which granted Governor Ralph Northam the right to take it down.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam wasted no time removing a 130-year-old statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent Richmond street Wednesday morning. 

The 12-ton Lee monument, the largest Confederate statue in the country erected on the aptly named Monument Avenue in the wake of the South’s loss in the Civil War, was the focus of massive protests in the summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, removed about a dozen city-owned statues last year, but Lee sat on state land and became the focus of a year-long legal battle after Northam, a Democrat, sought to have him removed. 

“The public monuments reflect the story we choose to tell about who we are as a people,” the governor said in a statement shortly after Lee was toppled around 9 a.m. Wednesday, less than 12 hours after the city shut down multiple surrounding blocks to the public. “It is time to display history as history, and use the public memorials to honor the full and inclusive truth of who we are today and in the future.” 

The link between Lee and the state’s “story” was at the core of the Virginia's legal argument for the right to remove the monument. While a handful of local residents sought to use a century-old law to force Virginia to maintain the statue in perpetuity, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week that monuments amount to state speech and enforcing the old law would limit that right in violation of the First Amendment. 

“The government’s right to free speech is an essential power inherent in all governments,” Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote in an opinion dissolving an injunction that blocked the statue’s removal. 

The state's high court affirmed the ruling of Richmond City Circuit Judge W. Reilly Marchant, who wrote the Confederate statues were a totem of a false and racist narrative.

In his October 2020 opinion, Marchant quoted historians who testified at oral arguments to the monuments as emblems of “a post-war South where the white citizenry wanted to impose and state unapologetically their continued belief in the validity and honor of their ‘Lost Cause,’ and thereby vindicate their way of life and their former Confederacy.” 

“It was out of this backdrop that the erection of the Lee monument took place,” he wrote. 

Among those who viewed Confederate statues in an intimidating way was Michelle Flaurent, a retired Caribbean native who moved to Richmond last year to be closer to her son. 

“Those statues were put there to intimidate people and I was intimidated,” she said Wednesday as she looked at the Lee statue, sitting on the grass with a kaleidoscope of weight-bearing straps still wrapped around the general's neck, waiting to be cut into pieces, lifted back onto a truck and shipped out of downtown Richmond. 

While other Virginia towns have considered creative options for their removed Confederate statues, including melting them down to be repurposed into inclusive artistic projects, Flauent said Lee shouldn’t be destroyed. She called the statue impressive from an artistic standpoint and instead argued it should be placed someplace where Lee's full history can be shown. 

“People still venerate him and his cause,” she said. “Put him somewhere where the narrative is different.”

Flaurent was one of hundreds of Richmonders who came to watch the statue's removal, calling back to the reported thousands of locals who came to see it erected 130 years ago. 

But the similarities stopped there: while the crowds back then expressed admiration for Lee, Wednesday morning featured artistic protests and praises for his statue's removal. 

“I was standing there in the darkness this morning thinking what I wanted to say: Giddy up loser,” said Kate Fowler, director of development at Studio Two Three, a local art collective which set up a screen printing table and was taking donations in exchange for signs reading “Giddy up loser” with a caricature of Lee riding off the page. 

Studio Two Three artists Kate Fowler and K.B. Brown churn out prints reading "Giddy up loser" on Wednesday as locals in Richmond, Va., celebrate the removal of the city's most prominent Confederate statue. (Brad Kutner/Courthouse News Service)

“Engagement has been through the roof,” she said as lines for the prints stretched around the block with residents hoping to memorialize the moment in art.  

But as the Lee statue heads to storage, those hoping to undo the state’s legislative history of inequality, the laws written in the shadow of Lee and the Lost Cause narrative, say there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Among those who will play a part in undoing that legacy is Democratic state Senator Jennifer McClellan, whose Richmond district includes Monument Avenue where only pedestals for the Lee statue now remain.

McClellan got to the area just in time to see the monument lifted into the air and said it felt like a weight was removed from her shoulders. 

A lifelong Central Virginian who was among the first in her family to attend mixed-race schools, the senator hopes to tackle institutional inequities faced by Black and marginalized people since long before the Lee statue was first erected.  

“Fully funding K-12 education, addressing inequities where your education depends on your zip code,” she said of changes that must be made, pointing to the county and state’s history of redlining, which allowed banks and governments to devalue Black-owned land, trickling down to every facet of public and civil life. 

“It’s always been and will continue to be a priority,” she said.

Follow Brad Kutner on Twitter

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