Va. Supreme Court clears way for removal of Lee monument in Richmond

By: - September 2, 2021 8:09 am

Protesters mill around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, which was covered in graffiti during demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality in 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Supreme Court of Virginia cleared the way Thursday for Gov. Ralph Northam to remove the Lee Monument in Richmond, one of the largest Confederate memorials in the state.

In two opinions issued Thursday, the Court denied challenges by a small group of neighbors and an heir to the family that initially granted the land for the monument, both of which hinged on language written into an 1890s deed requiring the state to “affectionately guard” the statue and hold it “perpetually sacred.”

The court called those provisions unenforceable.

“The Commonwealth has the power to cease from engaging in a form of government speech when the message conveyed by the expression changes into a message that the Commonwealth does not support, even if some members of the citizenry disagree because, ultimately, the check on the Commonwealth’s government speech must be the electoral process, not the contrary beliefs of a portion of the citizenry, or of a nineteenth-century governor and legislature,” the justices wrote.

Northam announced he planned to take down the state-owned memorial in June 2020 amid widespread protests for racial justice, but the lawsuits prevented work from beginning.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous win for the people of Virginia,” Northam said in a news release. “Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value. When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years.”

Attorney General Mark Herring, whose office defended the state’s position in court, celebrated the ruling. “Today, we turn the page to a new chapter in our Commonwealth’s history – one of growth, openness, healing, and hope,” he said in a statement.

The statue won’t be taken down Thursday, and the exact timeline for its removal remains unclear.

“This is an extremely complex removal that requires coordination with multiple entities to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” said the state’s Department of General Services, which is handling removal logistics. “A date for the removal, as well as ways in which the public can view it, will be announced at a later date.”

The state fenced off the monument in January in preparation for the statue’s removal. Four other Confederate memorials on Monument Avenue in Richmond that are owned by the city were removed in July 2020.

Lee’s removal will leave just one statue standing on the street, a monument to tennis legend and city native Arthur Ashe installed in 1996.

Mercury reporter Graham Moomaw contributed to this report.

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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.