Northam: 'Discussions ongoing' about prominent Lee statue
Newly empowered Democratic leaders in Virginia pledged Thursday to let local governments remove Confederate monuments, but Gov. Ralph Northam said he’s still weighing what to do with one of the state’s most prominent ones — a towering statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
As Virginia wrestles with its Civil War legacy, Northam unveiled multiple initiatives Thursday that he said were aimed at telling a more accurate and inclusive version of the state’s past. They include more funding for historic African American cemeteries and cultural sites and the creation of new highway markers.
At a news conference with legislative leaders and state officials, the governor also said he supports removing a statue of Lee that Virginia contributed to the U.S. Capitol grounds, and amending an existing state law that prohibits local governments from removing Confederate War memorials.
“These monuments tell a particular version of history that doesn’t include everyone. In Virginia that version of history has been given prominence and authority for far too long,” Northam said.
But as for an imposing, state-owned statue of Lee that’s a centerpiece of a historic street in Richmond — once the capital city of the Confederacy — the governor said “that’s an ongoing discussion.”
Lee’s 21-foot (6-meter) statue rises atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall on a grassy circle along Monument Avenue, a prestigious boulevard in the heart of the city.
Monument Avenue, a National Historic Landmark, is also dotted with statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, generals J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury. A statue of black tennis hero Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was erected there too in 1996.
Northam’s spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky declined to elaborate further about what conversations are ongoing about the Lee monument’s future.
Del. Delores McQuinn, a Democrat who represents Richmond, said she agrees that more dialogue is needed about the monument.
“Personally, I want to see additional statutes and monuments put up that would reflect a balanced history,” she said.
The long-running debate over whether Confederate monuments are appropriate in public spaces intensified after white supremacists converged on Charlottesville in 2017, in part to protest the city’s attempt to move a statue of Lee. The event descended into chaos and a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens more.
Some who want to preserve Confederate monuments say they are works of art and say their removal would amount to erasing history. Critics say they inappropriately glorify the state’s legacy of racism and slavery.
House Minority Leader Republican Del. Todd Gilbert said his caucus has bigger priorities than stopping efforts to remove Confederate statues, but warned that Democrats could be setting themselves up for headaches down the road.
“We could go after Woodrow Wilson before this is over. I mean, he was one of the biggest racist presidents in U.S. history,” Gilbert said. “Where this ends, I don’t know.”
Conversations are ongoing in Richmond about what the city will do with the statues it owns. A study commission formed by Mayor Levar Stoney in 2017 issued nonbinding recommendations that called for removing a statue of Jefferson Davis, leaving the rest and adding historical context. That commission’s work was then rolled to a second one, which was scheduled to meet this week to discuss how to add the historical context.
Also this week, the Richmond City Council passed a resolution asking the General Assembly for the authority to decide the statues’ fate, after defeating similar measures twice in previous years.
Governor Ralph Northam is proposing a bill for the General Assembly to consider that would give local governments control over Confederate monuments in Virginia.
If passed in the General Assembly, the bill would authorize Virginia localities “to have control over monuments and remove the existing statewide prohibition against removing Confederate War memorials.”
The announcement came Thursday, following Richmond City Council
over the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue earlier this week.
Right now, Virginia state law bans cities and towns from removing war memorials.
In the long-ongoing lawsuit over two Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, a judge
that the statues were classified as war monuments under that state law from the 1950s, which prevents war memorials from being removed by any locality, and effectively blocked the city from removing the statues.
The law makes it "unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with" any war monuments; Charlottesville argued in court that state law applied only to war memorials built after the law was amended in 1998 (the statute was originally passed in 1904 and codified in the 1950s, after the statues were erected in the 1920s), but that argument did not hold up.
Separately, prosecutors for the city of Norfolk are
to free speech, as part of a lawsuit seeking to remove an 80-foot monument in downtown Norfolk.
The long-running debate over Confederate statues gained new momentum after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 descended into violence and a car attack left a woman dead.
In the aftermath of the violence, many places around the country quickly started taking monuments down, but not in Virginia.
Northam also announced a bill to authorize the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol
Every state in America has two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection to honor notable people from their state. Virginia's are George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Virginia chose to add Lee back in 1909.
Some states have recently removed statues honoring Confederate leaders, like Florida, which recently replaced its statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with one of the civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
Northam's proposal would include a replacement statue of a well-known Virginian citizen.
During the Thursday press conference, Northam also proposed a bill to authorize the DHR to create a Historic African American Cemetery Grant Program and allow the DHR to add cemeteries to the list that receives annual maintenance.
In budget-related proposals, Northam proposed allotting money for the Historic African American Cemeteries Fund, Historic Highway Markers, the Virginia African American Trail and the American Civil War Museum - just to name a few organizations and locations on the list.