Richmond’s massive Robert E. Lee statue removed from pedestal, cut into pieces

Published: Sep. 8, 2021 at 7:28 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 8, 2021 at 11:28 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - History was made in Richmond Wednesday when one of the country’s largest Confederate monuments was taken down on the city’s famous Monument Avenue.

The 21-foot-tall bronze statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse was lifted off its 40-foot pedestal, more than 130 years after it was erected in the former capital of the Confederacy.

While many saw the statue as an offensive glorification of the South’s slave-holding past, public officials had long resisted its removal, along with residents of Virginia who argued moving the monument would be akin to erasing history.

However, following the death of George Floyd last year, Governor Ralph Northam announced intentions to remove Lee from the state-owned property. Last week, he finally won the right to take it down after more than a year in litigation.

Northam issued the following statement after the Robert E. Lee Monument was officially removed:

“After 133 years, the statue of Robert E. Lee has finally come down—the last Confederate statue on Monument Avenue, and the largest in the South. The public monuments reflect the story we choose to tell about who we are as a people. It is time to display history as history, and use the public memorials to honor the full and inclusive truth of who we are today and in the future.”

The bulk of the work started around 8 a.m. and continued into the afternoon. After a crane lifts the 12-ton statue to the ground, it will be cut into three pieces for transport. The piece of bronze went up in 1890, so cutting it into pieces safely could take a while.

“History is being made, and this is not something that happens every day...this has been a very long fight for people in Richmond,” said Mykel Parham, a VCU student in the crowd.

Just before the statue was lifted from its pedestal, Northam, his wife, Richmond’s Mayor and others watched from a secure viewing area on site.

“It allows us to close a chapter of the lost cause and begin a new. We’ve already begun writing that new chapter, and I’m grateful for all of the voices, all of the activism,” said Mayor Levar Stoney, Richmond.

Members of the Virginia General Assembly, who approved legislation for localities to remove Confederate monuments and the funds to make Lee’s removal possible, were also at the site Wednesday.

Following the removal, Stoney said the city’s Monument Avenue is now “free of oppressive symbols of Richmond’s Confederate past.”

“Symbols matter because they define who you are, who your community is, and now, we all know we are no longer that community. We are no longer the Captial of the Confederacy,” Stoney said.

However, he pointed out that the removal does not remove the systems created by the same people who erected these statues.

“We are dedicated to the reflection, policymaking and barrier-breaking required to truly move forward as an inclusive city,” Mayor Stoney’s statement continued. “Richmond is no longer the capital of the Confederacy, but a capital of honesty, of compassion and of growth.”

The governor said the work to get to this day actually started in Charlottesville. The deadly Unite the Right rally there in 2017 forced the state to reckon with its past and why those Confederate statues still stood in public spaces.

“To have that statue put up in 1890 - well after the Civil War was over - just another way to re-fight the Civil War, it was time for it to come down,” said Northam.

On Thursday, crews will remove the plaques and replace a time capsule on site. It will contain several items, including a vaccination card, a photo of a Black ballerina in front of the statue, a Black Lives Matter sticker and even a special edition of the National Geographic magazine with the iconic photo of George Floyd’s picture being projected onto the statue following his death.

The 40-foot granite pedestal left behind will remain - for now - as a plan comes together for the future of Monument Avenue.

The Lee statue was created by the internationally renowned French sculptor Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercie and is considered a masterpiece, according to its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, where it has been listed since 2007.

When the monument arrived in 1890 from France, an estimated 10,000 Virginians used wagons and rope to haul its pieces more than a mile to where it now stands. The statue was the first of five Confederate monuments to be erected on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were over, but Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.

The A.P. Hill monument is the last Confederate monument standing in Richmond and is also the site where Hill’s remains are buried. A spokesperson said there are plans to introduce an ordinance to Richmond City Council with the administration’s recommendation to relocate the remains and monument to Fairview Cemetery in Culpeper at the request of Hill’s desecendants.

Learn more about the history behind the statue in NBC12′s podcast How We Got Here:

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