Roughly one hour after workers tied straps around a 12-ton statue of Robert E Lee, a crowd gathered around the pedestal in Richmond, Virginia and cheered and sang as the 131-year-old monument to the Confederate general – central to Civil War mythology and Lost Cause iconography – was brought to the ground.
The scene in Virginia – once the capital of the Confederacy that fought to preserve slavery – marks a watershed moment in the latest push to remove statues of slaveholders and Confederate figures from public view, following a summer of racial justice protests in 2020 and a wave of statue removals across the US.
The capital city’s street best known for its icons of white power no longer features any.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced plans to remove the Lee statue – the largest, still-standing Confederate statue in the country – on 4 June, 2020, and the state’s Supreme Court sided with the decision after it was challenged in court, paving the way for construction crews in cherry-pickers to lift the statue from its pedestal.
A crowd chanted “Black lives matter” and sang “hey hey hey, goodbye” as a crane lifted the statue on 8 September. Crews then began sawing the statue into pieces to transport it into storage.
Governor Northam said removing the towering statue – a six-story bronze figure first erected in 1890 – “is an important step in showing who we are and what we value as a commonwealth”.
“The public monuments reflect the story we choose to tell about who we are as a people,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “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.”
“Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said in a statement, “We are diverse, open and welcoming city, and our symbols need to reflect this reality.”
The giant stone base on which it sat will remain in place, though the plaques around it commemorating General Lee will also be removed.
State lawmakers also are commissioning the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to survey experts and members of the public to draw up a new vision for Monuments Avenue.
Following decades of attempts to remove statues of Confederate figures from public space after their construction in the years after the Civil War during Jim Crow, demonstrators and state and local officials across the US revived their push in 2020.
In 2017, New Orleans officials removed four Jim Crow-era statues to Confederate leaders and white supremacists erected in the aftermath of Reconstruction and violent segregation. That year, a deadly white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, sought to block the removal of General Lee’s statue.
That year, at least 36 monuments to Confederate figures were removed across the US.
Last year, that figure was nearly 100.
On 29 June, the US House of Representatives voted to move statues of Confederate figures from the US Capitol, reviving an attempt to remove racist symbols from places of prominence that stalled in Congress last year.
But more Republicans voted against the measure in 2021 than they did last year under a similar proposal.
Only 67 Republicans joined Democrats to pass the bill, which would direct the Capitol architect to remove a dozen statues from public view. The measure passed by a vote of 285 to 120.
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