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City Council votes unanimously to remove Lee monument from downtown Roanoke

Museums, historical societies and battlefields will have 30 days to pitch the monument's future.
Published: Aug. 17, 2020 at 8:53 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - After months of discussion, Monday night Roanoke City Council voted unanimously to remove the Robert E. Lee Monument from the heart of the city’s downtown.

“We went through this process the right way, the legal way,” said Mayor Sherman Lea.

All seven members of council voted for the monument’s removal, with several saying it’s an overdue change.

“The history of this monument is not the history of Lee, or the Civil War. It is the history of 1960,” said Council Member Bill Bestpitch, alluding to the year the monument was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Bestpitch said this vote was the result of years of effort, pointing out the city has wanted to remove the monument since the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville three years ago.

“If the code of Virginia had allowed it, we would have begun the process of removing the monument that day,” he said.

The decision means historical societies, museums and battlefields will have 30 days to come forward with a proposal for what to do with the monument. If none come forward, the city manager will consider any other proposals that have been submitted, before making a recommendation to city council. After that, the monument’s base, the last piece standing, can be taken down.

Roanoke citizens had one last chance to weigh in on the monument’s removal during Monday’s meeting. In total, five people called or wrote letters in support of the monument.

“Add to the historical record, don’t subtract from it,” said one man, James Matthews.

However, nearly 90,000 people have signed petitions online calling for the monument’s removal. Two called in to the meeting supporting council’s choice.

“If you cannot revise a work in stone, you must destroy it,” said Dr. Gregory Rosenthal, a history professor at Roanoke College.

The plaza where the monument sits, just outside of Roanoke’s city hall, is still named “General Robert E. Lee Plaza.” Speaking by phone after the meeting, Bill Bestpitch said with the monument out of the way, he expects city council to turn its attention to the name. He said there’s currently no timeline for when a new name could be put in place, but the city will likely be looking for community input.

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