Virginia takes key step to remove Robert E. Lee statue from US Capitol

Robert E. Lee
A statue of Robert E. Lee is on display on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 24, 2015. The statue was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Virginia in 1909. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A Virginia panel voted Friday to have a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee removed from the U.S. Capitol after Gov. Ralph Northam told its members, “It is past time that we stop honoring the Confederacy.”

The statue of Lee was donated to the U.S. Capitol more than 100 years ago and is displayed in the crypt below the Rotunda. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, countless groups and students would pass by the statue during tours.

“To be clear, I believe that we need to remove and replace that statue just as soon as we can,” Northam said during a virtual meeting of the Commission on Historic Statues in the U.S. Capitol, a panel that was established by the Virginia General Assembly.

Northam noted that since the panel was set up earlier this year, “the conversation around Confederate memorials has evolved very rapidly.”

“These statues are divisive; they glorify a racist and painful time in our history, and it is past time that we stop honoring the Confederacy,” he said.

Members of the commission said they agreed with the governor and voted unanimously to approve his recommendation to have the statue of Lee removed.

“I am just so happy that in my lifetime — in my lifetime — I’m finally able to see these statues come down,” said state Sen. Louise Lucas, the first African-American woman elected to the Portsmouth City Council, before becoming a Virginia state lawmaker nearly 20 years ago.

The commission heard from a few members of the public on Friday, who spoke in favor of removing Lee’s statue. One of them was a guide who provides tours at the U.S. Capitol.

The panel also received nearly 50 written statements in support of the statue’s removal, while only one person wrote in support of keeping it where it is.

The U.S. House voted earlier this week to approve a bill to remove statues of Lee and other Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol. The measure was sent on to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain.

The House vote followed a summer of protests that began in May after George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis, as he pleaded with an officer and said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.”

Each state is allowed to have two statues in the U.S. Capitol. Many are located in Statuary Hall, but they are spread throughout the building.

Virginia’s other statue is of President George Washington, which is located prominently in the Rotunda.

State officials now plan to consider candidates for a statue to replace Lee, though it will likely take some time before the statue is taken away. Formal procedures have to be carried out through the Architect of the Capitol before a statue is removed.

It’s not clear where the statue of Lee would be taken. Members of the Virginia panel indicated they will consider various museums.

Northam also plans to remove a statue of Lee in Richmond. A judge this week heard hearings in connection with a Richmond lawsuit over the state’s plans, but will not rule immediately. A federal lawsuit seeking to prevent the statue’s removal was thrown out Friday.

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