A state panel charged with recommending a replacement for Virginia’s Robert E. Lee statue at the U.S. Capitol has set a Nov. 17 public hearing and is encouraging the public — including students in public and private schools — to submit their suggestions.
Written suggestions are due to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources by Nov. 27, the end of the public comment period.
Following the public hearing and the end of the public comment period, the Department of Historic Resources will present to the panel — the Commission for Historical Statues in the U.S. Capitol — a list of five finalists. During a virtual meeting in December, the commission will pick an honoree to recommend to the General Assembly.
The move to replace Virginia’s Lee statue in the Statuary Hall collection comes in a year in which Virginia has shed much of its public Confederate iconography after public protests initially prompted by the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
On Monday morning, a trial begins in Richmond Circuit Court in a legal challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam’s attempt to take down the prominent Lee statue on Monument Avenue.
As for replacing the Lee statue at the U.S. Capitol, nominations may be made via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to: U.S. Capitol Commission, DHR, 2801 Kensington Ave., Richmond, VA 23221. Interested parties also can sign up to make suggestions verbally at the virtual public hearing on Nov. 17. Go to https://www.dhr.virginia.gov for details on the public hearing.
So far, members of the public have submitted 45 names as suggestions for the statue to replace Lee at the U.S. Capitol. Among the most frequent suggestions so far are:
- George C. Marshall, a Virginia Military Institute graduate and longtime Loudoun County resident who was Army chief of staff during World War II. Marshall is perhaps best known for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the war.
- Booker T. Washington, a Franklin County native who founded the Tuskegee Institute and became a prominent educator and advocate for Blacks during segregation.
- Barbara Johns, who, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, led a student walkout at Farmville’s Moton High School in 1951 to protest the students’ substandard segregated school facilities. The Prince Edward County case became part of Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled government-segregated public schools unconstitutional.
The commission says the statue must depict an individual, not merely a concept. According to the office of the architect of the U.S. Capitol, a subject of a statue in the collection must be:
- a deceased person
- have been a citizen of the United States (Indigenous people who predate the U.S., such as Pocahontas and Powhatan, would qualify.)
- be illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military service
- represent only one individual
The Virginia commission has determined that the chosen individual also “should possess one or more of the following values and/or attributes”:
- association with significant events that changed the course of history
- association with significant ideals, writings, and/or intellectual thought
- exemplification of valor, patriotism, bravery
The state commission also determined that “the subject’s primary historical significance should be tied to Virginia directly or they should have spent the majority of their life in the state” and “the person should not be in conflict with current prevailing values.”
Written nominations should include the following:
- Name and contact information for the person making the nomination
- Name of school attended by a student making a nomination
- Name of the person suggested to replace Lee
- A brief statement regarding how the suggested person exemplifies the selection criteria.
The members of the commission are Ed Ayers, professor of new American history at the University of Richmond; Colita Fairfax, professor and Honors College senior faculty fellow at Norfolk State University; Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, chair; Fred Motley, founder of the Danville Storytelling Festival; Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe; Margaret Vanderhye, a former Democratic state delegate from McLean; and Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton. Julie Langan, director of the Department of Historic Resources, serves as an ex-officio member.
On July 24, the panel, which the General Assembly created this year, voted to take down the Lee statue and replace it with a to-be-determined Virginian. In August, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond announced it had agreed to take ownership of the statue at the commission’s urging.
The commission’s proposed budget for replacing the statue comes to nearly $500,000: $27,000 for the artist selection process, $350,000 for the artist’s work process, $42,000 for rigging, $5,000 to transport the statue and $75,000 for a ceremony and reception to unveil the statue at the U.S. Capitol.
The Lee statue has represented Virginia in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection for more than a century. Members of the Virginia panel have acknowledged the level of responsibility they feel in making the decision.
“This is going to be, and is, a daunting task because we are faced with public memory,” said Norfolk State’s Fairfax during the panel’s Oct. 8 meeting. She noted that some potential honorees might have done extraordinary things but have been minimized during their lifetimes and subsequently largely forgotten.
“I am absolutely feeling the weight of this process,” said Fairfax, noting that members of the public might have “preconceived notions” about who the panel should recommend.
Lucas, head of the panel, agreed, saying some have questioned the panel’s motives from its inception.
(Lucas was among 19 people charged with felonies last month related to a June protest and vandalism related to a Confederate monument in Portsmouth. Her lawyers have asked a judge to dismiss the charges, in a case that has had consequences for a number of Portsmouth officials.)
At the end of the panel’s Oct. 8 meeting, Lucas said: “Trust me. I feel the weight of it more than any of you can imagine.”