As two legal challenges seek to block the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that the “divisive” symbol has to go.
The suits challenge Northam’s plans to take down the most well-known Confederate symbol in the former capital of the Confederacy. One suit, which hinges on language in the deed signed in 1890 giving Virginia control of the statue, led a Richmond judge Monday night to pause the state’s removal plans.
A second lawsuit, also filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Richmond, with no decision yet, says the removal would violate federal landmark law.
In an 18-page complaint filed Monday in Richmond Circuit Court, William C. Gregory, the great-grandson of two signatories of the deed, argues that under the terms of the 1890 agreement and a legislature-approved resolution, the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
Northam, citing authority given to him in the Code of Virginia, announced last week that the state plans to remove the Lee statue, part of a larger purge of Confederate iconography along Monument Avenue, “as soon as possible.”
Hours after Gregory’s lawsuit was filed Monday, Richmond Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo granted a 10-day injunction to temporarily stop the state from removing the statue.
Northam said at a news conference Tuesday that he remains committed to removing the monument.
“This is a statue that is divisive. It needs to come down,” Northam said, “and we are on very legal solid grounds to have it taken down.”
Gregory, who is being represented by lawyer Joseph Blackburn Jr., said the state’s intentions are “in conflict” with the 1890 agreement. The lawsuit criticizes Northam’s plan to remove the statue and also criticizes the graffiti that’s been put on the statue by protesters, who have rallied at the monument over the past week and a half in opposition to police brutality and racism.
The lawsuit claims the graffiti has happened “in large part” because of the state’s “failure to guard and protect the Lee Monument as required by the Deed and Joint Resolution, and carry out their official responsibilities.”
Roger Gregory and Bettie F. Allen Gregory signed the March 17, 1890, deed, transferring the land, a 200-foot diameter circular plot, from the family to the state. Then-Gov. P.W. McKinney also signed the deed, according to the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, Gregory, the great-grandson, says removing the statue would cause “irreparable harm” because his family “has taken pride for 130 years in this statue resting upon land belonging to his family and transferred to the commonwealth in consideration of the commonwealth contractually guaranteeing to perpetually care for and protect the Lee Monument.”
“The failure to enter an injunction would allow the commonwealth to breach its contract with impunity,” the complaint says.
In the injunction issued late Monday, Cavedo said there is “a likelihood of irreparable harm to the statue” if it is removed as proposed by Northam and Department of General Services Director Joe Damico, the two defendants in the lawsuit.
“It is in the public interest to await resolution of this case on the merits prior to removal of the statue by defendants, and the public interest weighs in favor of maintaining the status quo,” the injunction reads.
State workers started inspecting the monument Monday for its planned removal. A specific date has not been set.
Bill Gallasch, the president of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society, a decades-old association different from a similarly named Facebook group that’s posted controversial messages about the monuments in recent weeks, did not return a phone call Tuesday.
Northam’s office said last week when it announced the removal plans that the governor was acting under executive authority and cited part of the state code that gives the governor power to remove existing works of art owned by the state.
In a statement Tuesday, Blackburn, Conte, Schilling, & Click, the law firm representing Gregory, said it takes seriously “our obligation to represent clients and handle cases even when those cases are controversial or unpopular.”
“Our legal system works best when every client is zealously represented,” the firm said, adding that it has put in "countless hours" of pro bono representation, including offering pro bono representation to those arrested in the recent protests. “We do not accept or refuse a case based on our personal beliefs. We believe that every client deserves proper legal representation, and we will present each case to the court, allow the court to make a reasoned decision, and respect the ruling of the court.”
The second lawsuit, from Henrico County resident William Davis, who is representing himself, asks the state to stop its removal efforts and restore the statue to its appearance before the graffiti.
“It’s sad to see all the people posing in front of it,” Davis said in a brief interview Tuesday, citing some of the profane slogans on the statue’s pedestal.
Davis cited removal requirements from the National Register of Historic Places, which the Lee statue is on, that he says the state hasn’t met.
Julie Langan, director and state historic preservation officer of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said last week that the statue’s listing on national and state historic registers does not have bearing on its potential removal.
Asked about the second suit, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky reiterated that the governor “remains committed to removing this divisive symbol” and is confident in his authority to do so.
Rita Davis, Northam’s counsel, said Tuesday that the administration had expected legal action and a possible injunction.
“That is by no means the end of the issue,” she said, adding that her office had been preparing for taking down the monument for more than a year. “It is only the beginning.”
As for the statue, Davis said: “Let’s be clear about one major thing here. Though this monument was cast in the image of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the purpose of this monument was to recast Virginia’s history — to recast it to fit a narrative that minimized a devastating evil perpetrated on African Americans during the darkest part of our past.”
Davis said Northam’s decision to move forward with the effort to remove the statue takes Virginia “a step closer to reclaiming the truth of Virginia’s history” for all Virginians.