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Lee Monument Removed after 130 Years

Crews remove one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/AP
Crews remove one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.

The 12-ton bronze statue of Robert E Lee stood six stories tall over Richmond’s Monument avenue for 130 years, until it was removed in short order by work crews Wednesday.

The statue was one of the most prominent symbols of racism in Virginia. Then, protestors reclaimed the space around it during the summer 2020 protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd. They turned the 40-foot pedestal into a nationally recognized symbol of protest and pushing elected officials to act on promises to remove other Confederate monuments.

“The statues in themselves, they don't mean anything,” said Michael Hayes, who came to the protest with his daughter. “These people are dead and gone. But to have those statutes remain up and for these people to be remained celebrated the way they are...it shows black and brown people that there's no hope. So it's important for these statues to come down...as we move towards equality.”

The Hayes’ spoke from a public viewing area that had been designated by the Department of General Services, where views of the statue were obstructed by the landscaping on the wealthy street.

When the monument came down, a group had crowded into one side of the street in order to see the statue. As it came down, they chanted.

“The people! United! Will never be defeated!”

Muhammad Abdul-Rahman also said that the defeat of this symbolism shouldn’t exclude more work.

“Symbolism is important, because something that existed, we never addressed and that's cultural hegemony. This was part of Richmond's culture,” he said. “But it didn't represent who we are, and it oppressed part of it. So symbolism is important, but we do need more substantial change.”

The statue’s removal had much more preparation than the city of Richmond’s removal of other Confederate Monuments along Monument avenue. Those removals were criticized for not being adequately transparent. The city argued that public safety dictated an emergency and quick response.

Tuesday night work crews closed off streets, and towed cars away. Drivers and pedestrians came to take photos of the statue’s last night on the traffic circle.

“I was thinking of how ironic it was that the sun was like setting on it. I know it stands for a lot of things, but it's also historical. So it's neat to see it one more time, but it's going to be good to say goodbye to it also,” said Allie Burnette, who pulled over to take a photo.

Dump trucks which have been used as defense against vehicle attacks in mass gatherings were also positioned around the area.

At white-nationalist rally in defense of Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E Lee in 2017, a man drove his vehicle into the crowd, killing one woman.

After crews used a crane to place the statue onto the grassy circle, workers broke it into smaller pieces so it could be transported out of the area.

The crowds thinned out as the morning went on. Many of those remaining played music and grilled fish.

As the pieces were strapped onto a truck bed, a thunderstorm moved into the area, but rain wasn’t enough for the holdouts to be sent home. They gathered under a nearby apartment buildings’ awning to watch the truck take the remnants of the statue away, cheering as it drove down Monument Avenue.

The pieces of the statue will be taken to storage until the state decides it’s fate.

Mykah Hayes said she supported removing the plinths, saying that they were still reminders of the statues. “It's kind of still lingering around if you will.”

As for Monument Avenue, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been charged with “reimagining” the boulevard, which boasts some of the most expensive real-estate in the city.

Michael Jones, who is on Richmond’s City Council, wants the area under the Lee Monument, which is state-owned, to be transferred to the city.

Workers also removed a plaque with Lee’s name on it. The 40 foot pedestal will remain for the time being. It includes a time capsule expected to hold Confederate memorabilia. Thursday a new time capsule will be replaced, which includes 39 objects, including many references to African-American culture.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.