A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and seven busts depicting Confederate leaders were removed overnight Thursday from the Old House Chamber inside the Virginia Capitol.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who decided to remove the Confederate representations, said in a statement that the state “has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants.
“The Confederacy’s primary objective in the Civil War was to preserve an ideology that maintained the enslavement of human beings,” Filler-Corn said. “Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth’s whole history.”
The busts removed from the former chamber of the House commemorated Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy; Alexander H. Stephens, former vice president of the Confederacy; Confederate Gens. J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Joseph Johnston and Fitzhugh Lee, who was Robert E. Lee’s nephew and served as the 40th governor of Virginia; and oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury. A plaque commemorated Thomas Bocock, former speaker of the Confederate States House of Representatives.
The Confederate iconography removed from the General Assembly’s gathering place was the latest in a string of such removals ushered by protests decrying systemic racism in Virginia and around the country.
In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, the removals have signaled the rejection of Confederate glorification — a movement that sought to perpetuate discrimination against Black people while denying that a key impetus for the Civil War was the defense of slavery.
Removal of the busts began just hours after a Richmond judge heard arguments in a legal challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam’s planned removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on the city’s Monument Avenue. A ruling in the case is pending.
The statue of Lee removed from display in the Capitol on Thursday night was moved to an undisclosed location. A spokesman for the speaker’s office, Jake Rubenstein, said the speaker had decided on an unannounced, overnight removal to avoid the presence of protesters who might threaten the safety of the removal process.
The statue, erected in 1931, marked the spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia’s forces in April 1861. The statue’s ultimate fate, along with that of the seven busts and the plaque, will be decided by a newly created advisory group on Capitol artifacts announced Friday.
The advisory group will be chaired by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, a long-serving lawmaker and prominent member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
In addition to weighing in on the removed artifacts, the group will advise the speaker on how to handle other artifacts still on display, and the possibility of erecting new artifacts and adding historical context in areas controlled by the House of Delegates.
The speaker’s office said Friday that the new advisory group would be made up of a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, historians and community leaders from around the state.
“The artifacts at the Capitol are a painful reminder of the deep-rooted wounds of slavery and 401 years of oppression. These Confederate artifacts are constant reminders of individuals who had no intentions of guaranteeing justice, equality and equity for all,” McQuinn said in a statement.
Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, applauded the move.
“Generations of Virginians, Americans, and visitors from around the world have been greeted by these imposing symbols of treason and white supremacy for far too long,” he said in a statement.
“If we are going to continue building a more inclusive and just Commonwealth, we must acknowledge and denounce the darkest parts of our nation’s history, not celebrate them. A significant step in that process is to ensure that these misguided symbols that honored a lost cause be relegated to space outside of the people’s Capitol.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, faulted Filler-Corn.
“The Speaker’s statement reaffirming her commitment to telling the whole history of the Commonwealth is perplexing, given the fact that the Lee statue in the old House chamber literally marks the spot where Lee accepted his general’s commission, setting off some of the most historic and tragic events in our nation’s history,” Gilbert said in a statement.
“Unlike the Lee monument on Monument Avenue, this statue is a historical marker. Another historical reality is that the Capitol building itself served as the Confederate Capitol, a fact that should no doubt force the Speaker’s new Advisory Group to recommend that it be razed to the ground.”
Senate Republicans decried the unannounced removal of the Confederate representations.
“Those who fear the scrutiny of their judgment and challenge to their authority execute consequential decisions in the dead of night,” said Senate GOP leaders, led by Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, in a statement.
The caucus described Filler-Corn’s decision as “arrogant,” and said Democrats “continue to dismantle, destroy and conceal objects that recall the history of Virginia.”
Most of the iconography removed overnight Thursday was created and erected in the early to mid-20th century, when “Lost Cause” fervor was particularly high.
In the 1920s, when Harry F. Byrd, future architect of Massive Resistance to school desegregation, was governor, Virginia set out to memorialize the moment in which Lee took command of Virginia’s forces.
The busts of Davis and Stephens were the two largest sculptures in the room following that of Lee, and were displayed prominently in alcoves. They were gifted to Virginia by officials in Mississippi and Georgia, in 1952 and 1953, respectively.