In Virginia’s Confederate statue debate, change came slowly — then all at once

Thousands of protesters gather at the Robert E. Lee Monument in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, lighting up the area with their cell phones, in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury)

During a history discussion at a book festival in Charlottesville eight years ago, a local official floated an idea that, at the time, seemed shocking.

After a speech by historian Edward Ayers, then-City Councilor Kristin Szakos asked if it was time to start talking about removing Confederate statues or balancing out the message they represent.

“By the gasps around me, you’d have thought I’d asked if it was OK to torture puppies,” Szakos said later as she recalled the “firestorm of vitriol and hatred” that came her way after her comment was reported in the local newspaper.

Five years later – when Charlottesville’s discussion of removing statues had progressed to the point that the council had voted to act – the world watched in horror as white nationalists rallied around the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee and attacked counter-protesters in the streets, killing one and injuring many others.

The shocking summer of 2017 was an inflection point in Virginia’s long-running debate over its Confederate symbols, pushing Democratic politicians to take stronger stands on a topic previously seen as taboo.

But three years after the state’s leaders started to feel comfortable saying the statues should come down — even as similar monuments were disappearing in other parts of the South — change in Virginia was unfolding slowly. Now, in another moment of unrest over racism in America after the killing of George Floyd, it’s happening all at once.

At a historic news conference Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced they are taking immediate steps to remove all Civil War statues from Monument Avenue, the former Confederate capital’s premiere showcase for the leaders of the failed rebellion. The first to go could be the towering, state-owned Robert E. Lee monument, unveiled 130 years ago before a crowd of 150,000 people. The governor said he has ordered state officials to remove the bronze statue from its pedestal and put it in storage “as soon as possible.”

Northam, whose ancestors owned slaves, asked Virginians to consider what they would say if a young black girl “looks you in the eye and says what does this big statue mean?” 

“When it’s the biggest thing around, it sends a clear message. This is what we value the most. But that’s just not true anymore,” Northam said. “I want us all to tell that little girl the truth. Yes, that statue has been there for a long time. But it was wrong then. And it is wrong now. So we’re taking it down.”

Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans Thursday to remove a state-owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond's Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans Thursday to remove a state-owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a descendant of slaves who has publicly protested Confederate commemorations while serving as president of the state Senate, also delivered remarks at Thursday’s announcement. Asked why he thinks opinion has shifted so rapidly, Fairfax said people “understand the moment of history that we are in.”

It brought home for people what we’ve been dealing with in this country for the last 400 years, and I think people have said enough,” Fairfax said. “No longer will you be executing black and brown bodies, no longer will you be treating people without any due process or any respect.”

Virginia’s recent reckoning with Confederate symbols began in earnest in 2015 following the racially motivated mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C.

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the state to stop issuing specialty Sons of Confederate Veterans license plates that incorporated the rebel battle flag. But he made clear he wasn’t interested in a discussion about taking down statues as activists pressured officials to change the route of an international bike race being held in Richmond to avoid spotlighting Monument Avenue.

A year later, during Richmond’s 2016 mayoral race, Stoney took a moderate approach to the statues, saying he wouldn’t “shed any tears” if the monument to Confederate President Jefferson Davis disappeared but wouldn’t make its removal a top priority. And though now-Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, held a press conference during the same race to proclaim his support for removing the Davis memorial, he reversed himself a few weeks later and said he was wrong.

A bigger change occurred in 2017 following the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when McAuliffe said the statues should come down because they were a “barrier to progress, inclusion and equality in Virginia.” Northam, a candidate for governor at the time, and Stoney, then in the first year of his term, issued similar statements.

But at that point, McAuliffe said he’d need General Assembly approval to take down the Lee statue.

As the years went by, not everyone sensed a shift in the political winds.

Corey Stewart, an anti-establishment Republican candidate for governor in 2017 who became his party’s U.S. Senate nominee in 2018, made preserving Confederate symbols a major theme of his anti-establishment message, going so far as to incorporate displays of the rebel flag into his gubernatorial campaign. He lost to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., by 16 points.

‘We knew better’

Despite McAuliffe’s hesitation about legal barriers, Northam seems to have concluded he does have the power to remove the Lee monument, saying Thursday that his team has been reviewing the issue for a year or more. It wasn’t immediately clear whether anyone would try to wage a legal fight to preserve the statues, which could involve Monument Avenue’s designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Stoney, who has wrestled with the statue issue for much of his term leading a strongly Democratic city, said he would introduce a statue removal ordinance to the Richmond City Council on July 1, the same day a new state law takes effect that allows localities to remove war monuments they control. Richmond “knew better,” Stoney said, as the city allowed the monuments to stand for over a century while black communities were oppressed by Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance.

“And we knew better long before the dying pleas of young black men like George Floyd,” Stoney said. “Now that we know better, it’s time to do better.”

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney speaks to a large crowd from the steps of City Hall in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Stoney called the event to apologize for how peaceful protesters had been treated by police in the previous days. Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney speaks to a large crowd from the steps of City Hall in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Stoney called the event to apologize for how peaceful protesters had been treated by police in the previous days. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Ana Edwards, a Richmond activist who has spent years pressing for the statues to be removed as part of her work with the social justice group Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, said she wasn’t surprised to see the gradual pace of change reach a tipping point.

“That’s how people work. We don’t want to throw over society. Fundamentally, people want things to be OK,” Edwards said. “It takes a lot to make enough people say we can’t do this anymore. Enough is enough. This really is what people experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. You had whole swathes of American society who finally couldn’t take it anymore and began to be visible about that.”

Thousands of protesters march peacefully along Broad Street in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Edwards said when her group got started in 2002, “nobody said the words white supremacy in print.”

“If you said ‘racist’ in a public conversation, everybody got squirmy and uncomfortable,” Edwards said. “Over the last five years that has completely changed.”

Zyahna Bryant, a Charlottesville student who started a petition in 2016 to have her city’s statues removed, said the rapid change wouldn’t have been possible without younger activists like her who have taken to the streets to demand it. Stoney and Northam’s announcement followed six days of demonstrations in Richmond, across Virginia and in cities around the country to protest police brutality and racism after the death of Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.

“Without a little bit of making people uncomfortable, we wouldn’t be here,” Bryant said.

Zy Bryant, who as a high school student in Charlottesville launched a petition for a state of Robert E. Lee to be removed from a city park, said Thursday that young people brought finality to an issue that years of panel discussions and studies couldn't. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Zyahna Bryant, who as a high school student in Charlottesville launched a petition for a state of Robert E. Lee to be removed from a city park, said Thursday that young people brought finality to an issue that years of panel discussions and studies couldn’t. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Northam and Stoney both offered simple explanations when asked what had moved them to act now after years of debate on whether the monuments should stay or go.

“As a physician, I can recognize pain,” Northam said.

In an interview, Stoney said that even though he had passed the Lee monument many times, he had never stood directly by it until this week as he joined the crowds of demonstrators at its base.

“It’s a different sort of perspective when you get there right underneath that pedestal and that base. It’s a different feeling,” said Stoney, who was put on the defensive this week after his police department shot tear gas at peaceful protesters gathered at the Lee statue.

‘I can’t believe it’s really happening’

The Confederate monuments have been a focal point for the protests that have been happening in Richmond for nearly a week. Most of them are now covered other graffiti, including, prominently, “Black Lives Matter.”

Protesters mill around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Protesters mill around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

On Thursday morning, people continued to trickle to the site, many carrying signs calling for change. Cars slowed as they rounded the circle, with drivers honking and holding up their fists in support. Some parents brought their children, who played on the paint-covered monument as their mothers and fathers took photographs.

An African-American health care worker named Si who declined to provide her last name said she wanted “to show my daughter part of what’s going to be history for us.”

“I can’t believe it’s really happening,” she said. “We’re happy it’s getting taken down.”

Raelyn Fines, a recent photography and arts education graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, said the paint reveals “our anger, our frustration,” and makes the monument “way more pleasing to look at than without the graffiti.

“The action of spray-painting the monument is really impactful to see. I’d like to find some way to memorialize it while still taking down Lee,” she said. “…The different handwritings and fonts — you can tell so many different people have this outrage toward the monument.” 

Not everyone gathered at the Lee monument supported its removal.

“It don’t bother me. These statues have been here forever,” said one African-American Richmonder who declined to give her name.

“I feel like people are getting out of hand with this. It started with the cops being brutal. Now they’re going to take the statue down,” said Sandra Hagerman, a West End resident who said she saw no connection between the two issues. 

“You don’t just go ripping down a bunch of statues of history,” she said. 

‘More likely to further divide’

Virginia Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election in more than a decade and whose recent nominees have campaigned on keeping the statues in place, seemed divided on how to respond.

State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, the only declared Republican candidate for governor in 2021, published a Facebook video in which she blasted the decision as part of an “overt effort here to erase all white history.”

Removing the Robert E. Lee statue is a cowardly capitulation to the looters and domestic terrorists,” Chase said in a statement released by her campaign. “If the state is unable to defend a monument weighing several tons in a well-lit area, what hope do citizens have of the government protecting their houses and businesses?”

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Senate Republicans, who kicked Chase out of their caucus after she berated a Capitol Police officer over parking privileges, released a statement slamming both Northam’s decision and Chase’s response.

“Like Senator Chase’s idiotic, inappropriate and inflammatory response, his decision is more likely to further divide, not unite, Virginians,” Senate GOP leaders said.

They also suggested Northam’s decision may have been an effort to atone for the scandal that erupted last year over a racist photo published on the governor’s medical school yearbook page.

“Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail,” the Senate GOP said. “And because of this governor’s personal history, the motivations of this decision will always be suspect.”

The interior of a video game shop that was looted overnight in Richmond on Saturday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said Thursday’s announcement was an effort to distract from the uneven efforts to corral the protests in the capital city that have occasionally turned violent.

“The leadership failure from City Hall to the Executive Mansion has been complete, so naturally, they’re thrilled to change the subject,” Gilbert said.

‘We need healing most of all’

Richmond won’t be alone in its push to take statues down this summer.

Come July 1, other cities and counties will have the opportunity to remove or modify the hundreds of Confederate memorials that stand by Virginia’s roads and courthouses. During the 2020 legislative session, the General Assembly voted to undo a longstanding state law that prevented removal of war memorials, empowering local governments to make their own decisions about statues in their communities.

The city of Norfolk has moved to take down its monument as soon as possible. Anticipating that a monument it owns was destined to come down anyway, the United Daughters of the Confederacy took down a memorial in Alexandria that stood at a prominent intersection.

Northam said he hoped Thursday’s news conference would send a signal to communities in Virginia and the nation that it’s time to move on. The governor and others acknowledged that simply removing a symbol of the past won’t address the broader issues of police brutality and racial inequities in education, health care and housing.

“We still need change in this country. We need healing most of all,” Northam said. “But symbols do matter. My friends, we all know it’s time. And history will prove that.”

Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans Thursday to remove a state-owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond's Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Ralph Northam outlined plans Thursday to remove a state-owned statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

‘Walking into a new era’

At Thursday’s news conference, two descendants of high-profile Virginians stood up to speak about the state’s complex history and the future that’s still being decided.

The Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, the great-great-great-great grandnephew of the Confederate general, said people had wrongly turned his ancestor into an “idol.”

I recognize that there are people on the fence, I recognize that there are people who are hurting because of this decision,” Lee said in an interview. “But obviously, for me, it comes down to an issue of loving other people and loving enough to realize that my own family lineage is causing pain right now.”

Robert Johns, a relative of civil rights icon Barbara Johns, who led a strike for equal schools in as a teenager in Prince Edward County, called the Lee statue a “symbol of hate, bigotry and division.”

“We are now walking into a new era of acceptance, respect and inclusion,” Johns said. “It is young people, a new generation that are leading us.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. She previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress, and her work has been twice honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Institute and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association. Contact him at [email protected]

Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.