Northam Removes Robert E. Lee Statue from U.S. Capitol in Dead of Night

Twitter/Ralph Northam
Twitter/Ralph Northam

Democrat Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who faced controversy for dressing in black face while in medical school, ordered a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee removed overnight from the United States Capitol.

The Washington Post reported it will be replaced by a statue of Barbara Johns, who was a civil rights activist as a teen in Farmville, Virginia.

“Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had requested the removal over the summer after a commission chartered by the General Assembly decided that a man who fought to uphold slavery was not a fitting symbol for a diverse and modern state,” the Post reported.

“I look forward to seeing a trailblazing young woman of color represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where visitors will learn about Barbara Johns’ contributions to America and be empowered to create positive change in their communities just like she did,” Northam said Sunday night in press release.

Media reports on the removal did not include more details about Lee, which are included in the left-wing Smithsonian Magazine in a 2003 article written by Roy Blount Jr.

Blount described Lee, who is rejected by Northam and others because of his support of slavery, as a “paragon of manliness” and “one of the greatest military commanders in history,” who was nonetheless “not good at telling men what to do”:

At the heart of Lee’s story is one of the monumental choices in American history: revered for his honor, Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission to defend Virginia and fight for the Confederacy, on the side of slavery. “The decision was honorable by his standards of honor—which, whatever we may think of them, were neither self-serving nor complicated,” Blount says. Lee “thought it was a bad idea for Virginia to secede, and God knows he was right, but secession had been more or less democratically decided upon.” Lee’s family held slaves, and he himself was at best ambiguous on the subject, leading some of his defenders over the years to discount slavery’s significance in assessments of his character. Blount argues that the issue does matter: “To me it’s slavery, much more than secession as such, that casts a shadow over Lee’s honorableness.”

The Post reported on the development:

The General Assembly will vote during its session that begins Jan. 13 on whether to authorize the statue of Johns, who died in 1991 at 56. Northam included $500,000 for the effort in his proposed state budget.

Some of Virginia’s congressional delegation — including Reps. Jennifer Wexton and A. Donald McEachin, both Democrats — had called for the Lee statue’s removal from the Capitol last year.

“This is a historic and long-overdue moment for our Commonwealth,” Wexton and McEachin said in a joint statement Sunday night. “The Robert E. Lee statue honors a legacy of division, oppression, and racism — a dark period in the history of our Commonwealth and our country. There is no reason his statue should be one of the two representing Virginia in the U.S. Capitol.”

Wexton and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) attended the statue’s removal, which took place around 3 a.m., according to the Post.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also weighed in on the removal. 

“The removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and its forthcoming replacement by a tribute to Barbara Johns of Virginia is welcome news,” Pelosi said on Twitter. “There is no room for celebrating the bigotry of the Confederacy in the Capitol or any other place of honor in our country.” 

The Lee statue was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Virginia in 1909, according to the Architect of the Capitol.

“In Washington, Lee had stood in the Crypt of the Capitol, where 13 statues commemorate the 13 original English colonies in North America,” the Post reported. “The figure will be relocated to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond.”

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