After Protests, and Decades of Activism, Northam Orders Removal of Iconic Lee Statue

Jun 4, 2020

In this photo taken with a drone, a large group of protesters gather around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue near downtown Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The crowd protesting police brutality chanted "Tear it down."
Credit AP Photo/Steve Helber

Virginia will take down one of the state’s largest and most prominent Confederate monuments. Governor Ralph Northam announced Thursday that the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue will soon be removed. 

The announcement comes not just after several nights of protest, but also after decades of on-the-ground activism. 


Standing before the Robert E. Lee monument Thursday, activist and historian Joseph Rogers says it’s hard to put his feelings into words. 

 

“It’s just too much,” he said. “It’s almost overwhelming.” 

Rogers first joined the fight to take down Confederate monuments in 2017. He was attending a march and vigil for Heather Heyer, the young woman killed when white supremacists rallied in nearby Charlottesville, when he connected with other activists, like the Defenders. 

The Defenders for Freedom Justice and Equality are a grassroots group that have been fighting to take down Richmond’s Confederate monuments since the early 2000’s. But that history of resistance, says Rogers, is more than a century old. 

 

Joseph Rogers, a local historian and activist, in front of the Robert E. Lee monument.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne/Radio IQ

“For 130 years, ever since it went up,” Rogers says, “passive resistance to the monuments has been going on for years.” 

Rogers knows because his ancestor James Fields was part of that resistance. 

Fields was a state lawmaker when the statue was first unveiled in 1890. At the time, black Virginians were being violently and systematically shut out of the voting booth. Fields would be one of the last black lawmakers in the state for more than 70 years. He used his time in power to fight for black Virginians’ rights. 

“He was part of that protest to white supremacy then. And I’m happy to be a part of the protest now…against white supremacy. It’s symbols. And its legacies,” says Rogers.  

And perhaps no symbol is larger than the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. It’s more than six stories tall and weighs 12 tons. 

“When a young child looks up and sees something that big and prominent she knows that it must be important,” said Governor Ralph Northam Thursday, announcing his decision to take it down. “And when it’s the biggest thing around it sends a clear message. This is what we value the most. But that’s just not true anymore.” 

Northam added that it’s time to be honest about Virginia’s history -- that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that now, in 2020, the state can no longer honor a society built on buying and selling human beings. 

“So I want us all to tell that little girl the truth,” he said. “Yes that statue has been there for a long time. But it was wrong then and it is wrong now. So we’re taking it down.” 

State officials say they’re still planning how to safely remove Lee and his bronze horse from the pedestal. The Department of General Services has been tasked with putting the statue in storage and Northam says, after that, it will be up to the community to decide what to do.

Speaking to reporters, Reverend Robert W. Lee the fourth, a descendent of Robert E. Lee, praised the decision.

“I choose to be on the side of history… not the side that my uncle was on years ago I choose to be on the right side that chooses justice and equality and faith, over fear,” he said. 

State officials say they’re working to remove the monument “as soon as possible.” For those who have been waiting decades that day can’t come soon enough. 

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