The imposing centerpiece of Richmond, Virginia’s no-longer-so-aptly-named Monument Avenue, a 12-ton bronze equestrian statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, was detached from its soaring marble plinth via crane this morning and is at long last headed to storage.
Designed by French sculptor Antonin Mercié, the National Register of Historic Places-listed Lee statue was the first, and largest, of five monuments honoring Confederate figures to be installed along storied Monument Avenue between 1890 and 1929. The statue, which was also one the largest and most well-known Confederate monuments anywhere at 60-feet-tall including its massive base, was also the last to come down, following a unanimous ruling made last week by the Virginia Supreme Court that ended ongoing litigation and permitted Governor Ralph Northam to proceed with his removal plans.
Northam first announced his desire to remove the Lee monument last June during a historic sweep of civil rights protests decrying police brutality and racial injustice that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Dozens upon dozens of statues across the globe, most of them featuring likenesses of historic figures representing hate, oppression, and intolerance, were either removed from public view or felled by protestors last summer. However, the Commonwealth-owned Lee statue remained in place on Monument Avenue despite Northam’s order, which was blocked by a string of lawsuits filed by groups wanting to see the monument left intact.
The four other statues of Confederate icons populating Monument Avenue—J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury—along with other Jim Crow-era leftovers in the public realm—were all swiftly removed by the city last July per the order of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney save for the bronze memorial to Davis, which was toppled by protestors on June 10, 2021. Monument Avenue’s single non-Confederate statue, a physically-separated-from-the-rest tribute to the late African American tennis star and Richmond native Arthur Ashe installed in 1996, remains standing.
Northam himself was present at this morning’s removal of the Lee statue, joined by Stoney and a crowd of hundreds, most of whom were overjoyed to see the Confederate relic finally go. Per the Wall Street Journal, hundreds more tuned into a livestream of the removal event on Northam’s Twitter feed. Security was understandably tight and the crowds of onlookers were kept at a distance from the monument site, and no arrests or counter-protests were reported per the Associated Press.
“After 133 years, the statue of Robert E. Lee has finally come down — the last Confederate statue on Monument Avenue, and the largest in the South,” said Northam in a statement. “The public monuments reflect the story we choose to tell about who we are as a people. 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.”
As detailed by the AP, the early morning removal and relocation process took a little over an hour and involved lifting the statue from its pedestal and then severing the bronze sculpture in two parts with a power saw along Lee’s midsection, essentially removing Lee from his horse, so that it can be more securely transported. The effort was headed by Team Henry Enterprises, a Black-owned Virginian company whose executive, Devon Henry, received death threats following the city-ordered removal of Richmond’s other Confederate statues.
The ultimate fate of the Lee statue is uncertain, although the AP noted that the Commonwealth will seek public input regarding the next steps in deciding on what Northam’s office has referred to as a “permanent, appropriate location.” For now, the statue will be stored in an undisclosed state-owned storage facility. As for the massive, graffiti-clad pedestal, it will remain in place although its decorative plaques will be reportedly removed later this week. Per Northam’s office, the pedestal’s “final disposition will be determined following a community-driven effort to reimagine Monument Avenue, including the state-owned property surrounding the monument and the pedestal.” The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been tapped to lead the revamping of Monument Avenue, which as of this morning, is now wholly free of towering testaments to the Confederacy.
Roughly 70 miles away from the former capital of the Confederacy in the city of Charlottesville, another statue of Lee, one that’s planned removal in 2017 was delayed by lawsuits preceding and following the deadly Unite the Right white supremacist rally, was removed without incident earlier this summer along with a statue of Stonewall Jackson.