Southern heritage statues and memorials are on the chopping block. Many monuments tied to Confederate history are being removed in the wake of global racial unrest. In the past, calls to ax rebel memorials were met with major pushback. Not anymore.
Virginia has clung to its Confederate past longer than most other states. That’s partly due to a state law that protects memorials to war veterans. Lawmakers amended the regulation earlier this year.
Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy. But in June, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam removed one of the nation’s most iconic tributes to the Confederacy: a bronze statue of General Robert E. Lee astride his horse, Traveller.
Since 1890, the statue sat on state property in the middle of Richmond’s renowned Monument Avenue. The avenue hosts six large statues, five of which are soldiers of the Confederacy. Richmond’s mayor plans to remove these as well. The sixth pays tribute to African-American professional tennis player Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native.
Lee and his horse will reside in storage while Northam’s administration seeks input about its future. For now, only the 40-foot-tall granite pedestal remains. Like many such monuments, it may find a home in a museum at some point. But it will no longer be featured in a location central to the entire community.
Black leaders and activists praise Northam’s decision as a step toward equality.
“I always hoped this day would come but never fully believed it would,” says Virginia Senator Jennifer McClellan.
Corey Stuckey has led protests at Lee’s statue before. He says its removal “shows that change is actually coming.”
Other Confederate symbols have come down around the South. The removals have often been in response to calls to eliminate from public spaces such rebel monuments, which some say revere historical figures who led the fight to keep slavery legal. These calls intensified during protests after the tragic death of George Floyd, for which a Minneapolis police officer was charged with murder. (See “George Floyd Protests.”)
In Alabama, officials removed a statue of Confederate naval officer Admiral Raphael Semmes. It stood in downtown Mobile for 120 years. The statue had become a center for protest in the city. After protesters vandalized the monument in June, the city removed it without any public notice.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson says the decision was “not an attempt to rewrite history. . . . Moving this statue will not change the past. It is about removing a potential distraction so we may focus clearly on the future of our city.”
Back in Richmond, former city councilman Wes Bellamy says the removal of Lee’s likeness is “like divine intervention.” He adds, “We’ve slayed Goliath.”