Virginia Governor Pushes to Remove Robert E. Lee Statue from U.S. Capitol

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) has filed a request to push for a bill to remove and replace Virginia’s statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which is located in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Northam’s spokesperson confirmed to the Associated Press that the governor had filed a request to remove the statue located at the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building and selecting a replacement. The governor’s response comes after two Virginia Democratic lawmakers, U.S. Representatives Jennifer Wexton and A. Donald McEachin, wrote a letter to Northam on December 23 that the statue, which depicts Lee in Confederate uniform, should be removed.

Quick Facts

  • The letter by the two state lawmakers state that the statue, which is one of the two state statues placed in the hall, “was donated by the Commonwealth during the period from 1900 to the 1930s when dozens of Confederate monuments were erected across the country.”

  • The lawmakers wrote that the statue “serves as a prevalent reminder of Virginia’s disturbing racial legacy.” The letter states that the statue should be removed and that there are many other significant people who should be commended with a statue, mentioning Virginians like Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, who lead a slave rebellion that took place in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831. The letter also suggested honoring Booker T. Washington, an emancipated slave who served as an adviser to Presidents Roosevelt. Oliver Hill, an NAACP lawyer and Barbara Johns, a student who organized a school walkout to protest unequal facility conditions and overcrowding in African American schools, were also suggested by the two lawmakers to be honored in the state. The letter reads: “As Virginians, we have a responsibility to not only learn from but also confront our history. As part of this responsibility, we must strive for a more complete telling of history by raising up the voices, stories, and memories of minorities and people of color,” the letter read. “In doing so, we should consider what monuments we can add to acknowledge the horrors of slavery, expose the injustices of institutional racism, and honor those who dedicated their lives to fighting for equality.”

  • In order to replace the statue, the procedures and guidelines for Replacement of Statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection by the Architect of the Capitol state that removal requires legislation to be passed through that state’s general assembly, which then must be signed into law by the governor, according to the letter by the lawmakers. The request will then be passed on to the Architect of the Capitol.

  • States like Alabama and Florida have removed statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection that honor Confederate military officials.

  • There have been 100 Confederate monuments and symbols removed in the U.S, since the Charleston, South Carolina shooting in 2015, when a white supremacist shot and killed nine black churchgoers, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). As of 2019, there are currently 1,747 statues, place names and other symbols of the Confederacy that still exist in the U.S., including 780 monuments, according to the SPLC.

What they’re saying

Bill Farrar, director of strategic communications at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, told The North Star that this debate has been going on in the state for years. Last year, the organization read a letter during a public hearing hosted by the Department of General Services about regulations for protests and demonstrations at the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia. The letter, which raised constitutional concerns about the proposed regulations, also called for Northam to issue and executive order to remove that statue.

“The Governor could use his executive power to have the Lee Monument removed from the state property where it is now located. If the Lee Monument were not located where it is now, there would be no need for these onerous (and, potentially, unconstitutional) regulations regarding the use of the grounds surrounding it,” the letter states.

Farrar said Northam has been vocal about the need to take down Confederate monuments but said that if he is serious about making these changes, he could start by taking down the monument in Richmond. The Lee monument in Richmond, which is located on state property on Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue, can be taken down, while other monuments in the state were built on donated land with privately-raised money and given to the city, WTVR previously reported.

“It’s confusing that he would look to the legislature to solve that one particular problem and not take action on a problem that also exists that he can solve on his own any day he chooses to do that,” Farrar told TNS.

“The governor could anytime he chooses to declare that to be a piece of surplus property and have that disposed of any way he sees fit,” Farrar continued. “But we don’t understand why he would support the removal of one, and not do the other when he has the power to do that right now.”

Northam’s Controversial Past

Last year, an investigation was launched on Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page that depicted a picture of a person in blackface standing next to another person dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. During a press conference after admitting he was one of the people in the photo in the yearbook, he denied that he was depicted on the yearbook page but said he wore blackface for a San Antonio talent show in 1984 to look like Michael Jackson.

In May, the law firm handling the investigation into Northam’s yearbook said it was unable to conclude if Northam appeared in the photo, USA Today previously reported. The law firm of McGuireWoods reached out to 1984 yearbook staff members and alums of the school, but could not determine if the governor was in the photo.

"We could not conclusively determine the identity of either individual depicted in that photograph," said Richard Cullen, the lead investigator for the law firm, previously told the publication.

One theory for why Northam is keen on removing the Lee statue from the U.S. Capitol is to appeal to black Virginia voters offended by his yearbook photo. Last month, Northam proposed to end state funding for the maintenance of Confederate graves in the state and use the money to create an African American cemeteries fund, Northam’s spokeswoman previously told The Virginia Mercury.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.