On Wednesday morning, hundreds of people gathered near a central traffic circle in the heart of Richmond, Virginia, to witness a historic event. Just before 9 a.m., a crew of city workers hoisted a 21-foot-tall, 12-ton bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its pedestal and placed it on a truck bed.
Crews then cut the enormous statue in half with a power saw and drove its disassembled parts to an undisclosed storage facility, report Sarah Rankin and Denise Lavoie for the Associated Press (AP).
The equestrian statue’s removal is the latest in a series of major changes along Monument Avenue, a historic thoroughfare in the Virginia state capital—also the former capital of the Confederacy. Last summer, in the wake of widespread protests against racial injustice sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, the city took down four other Confederate statues that once stood along the tree-lined avenue.
All told, local and state governments across the country removed at least 168 Confederate symbols in 2020—a dramatic increase from years prior, according to data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Lee’s statue—the most prominent of the ones lining Monument Avenue–was also slated to be taken down last summer. But a group of Richmond residents filed a lawsuit that delayed the process by a year. Virginia’s Supreme Court finally dismissed the case last week, allowing the removal to move forward, reports Chandelis Duster for CNN.
Richmond’s large collection of Confederate monuments has long been one of the city’s defining features. Now, writes Sabrina Tavernise for the New York Times, the capital is “littered” with empty pedestals. Plans to develop community-led programs that create new public art for Richmond’s thoroughfares are in the works.
“This city belongs to all of us, not just some of us,” David Bailey, director of Arrabon, a nonprofit organization that supports churches’ racial reconciliation work, tells the Times. “Now we can try to figure out what’s next. We are creating a new legacy.”
According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR), Lee’s likeness was first unveiled on May 29, 1890. Designed by French sculptor Antonin Mercié, the work depicts a larger-than-life Lee in a heroic position astride a horse. It stood atop a 40-foot-tall, pink granite pedestal.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white authorities in many states—and particularly in the Jim Crow South—erected monuments to Confederate generals to champion racist ideologies. The statues paid “homage to a slave-owning society and [served] as blunt assertions of dominance over” Black Americans, as Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2018. (The pair’s investigation into the costs of the Confederacy found that American taxpayers paid at least $40 million to preserve Confederate monuments across the country over the past decade.)
Richmond’s Lee’s sculpture has “provided a physical icon for the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’” for generations, notes the VDHR. The term refers to a myth, championed by white supremacists, that purports the Civil War had little to do with defending the institution of slavery. Instead, adherents argue, the Confederate States waged war to protect states’ rights.
As Adam Serwer explained for the Atlantic in 2017, Lee’s reputation has likewise been shrouded in myth.
White supremacists sometimes argue that the general was “a devoted Christian man who abhorred and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.” In truth, Serwer added, Lee—as the leader of the Confederate forces—was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people during a war waged in the name of preserving slavery as the status quo. He espoused white supremacist views and was an enslaver who beat the people he enslaved.
“To describe this man as an American hero,” wrote Serwer, “requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage [and] his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution.”