RICHMOND, Va. — A statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee that towered over Richmond for generations was taken down, cut into pieces and hauled away Wednesday, as the former capital of the Confederacy erased the last of the Civil War figures that once defined its most prominent thoroughfare.

Hundreds of onlookers erupted in cheers and song as the 21-foot-tall bronze figure was lifted off a pedestal and lowered to the ground. The removal marked a major victory for civil rights activists, whose previous calls to dismantle the statues had been steadfastly rebuked by city and state officials alike.

Virginia cuts Confederate Gen. Robert Lee statue into pieces

Crews work to remove one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Richmond, Va.

“It’s very difficult to imagine, certainly, even two years ago that the statues on Monument Avenue would actually be removed,” said Ana Edwards, a community activist and founding member of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom Justice & Equality. “It’s representative of the fact that we’re sort of peeling back the layers of injustice that Black people and people of color have experienced when governed by white supremacist policies for so long.”

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the statue’s removal last summer amid the nationwide protest movement that erupted after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. But litigation tied up his plans until the state Supreme Court cleared the way last week.

Northam, who watched the work, called it “hopefully a new day, a new era in Virginia.”

“Any remnant like this that glorifies the lost cause of the Civil War, it needs to come down,” he said.

The 21-foot bronze sculpture was installed in 1890 atop a granite pedestal about twice that tall. The sculpture was perched in the middle of a state-owned traffic circle, and it stood among four other massive Confederate statues that were removed by the city last summer.

A construction worker who strapped harnesses around Lee and his horse lifted his arms in the air and counted, “Three, two, one!” to jubilant shouts from the crowd as the crane prepared to wrest the statue away.

Some chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” and sang, “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”

Once the statue was on the ground, the crew used a power saw to cut it in two along the general’s waist, so that it could be hauled under highway overpasses to an undisclosed state-owned facility until a decision is made about its future.

The job was overseen by Team Henry Enterprises, led by Devon Henry, a Black executive who faced death threats after his company’s role in removing Richmond’s other Confederate statues was made public last year. He said the Lee statue posed their most complex challenge.

Gen. Lee statue comes down in former Confederate capital

Devon Henry, owner of the construction company that removed the statue, hugs his mom, Freda Thornton, after he removed one of the country's largest remaining monuments to the Confederacy, a towering statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021.



Within hours, the pieces were gone. They were hauled away on a flatbed truck to cheers from the remaining crowd and claps of thunder from a midday storm. The pedestal is to remain for now, although workers are expected to remove a time capsule from the structure Thursday.

The work proceeded under a heavy police presence, with streets closed for blocks around the area, but no arrests were reported, and no counter protesters emerged.

Those who opposed the statue’s removal often noted its artistic significance and Virginia’s centrality to the Civil War. They argued taking the statues down would amount to erasing a key part of the commonwealth’s history. As recently as several years ago, key government officials argued for keeping it in place.

After a rally of white supremacists in the city of Charlottesville, Va., erupted into violence in 2017, other Confederate monuments started falling around the country. But at the time, local governments in Virginia were hamstrung by a state law protecting memorials to war veterans. That law was amended by the new Democratic majority at the Statehouse and signed by Northam, allowing localities to decide the monuments’ fate as of July 1, 2020.

Del. Delores McQuinn, a Democrat whose district includes Richmond and who sponsored the 2020 war memorial legislation, said she used to avoid driving on Monument Avenue because she found the statues so offensive. Seeing Lee come down Wednesday was “surreal,” she said.

“The fight, the struggle … hopefully some of the ancestors feel vindicated,” said McQuinn, who is Black and has been an outspoken advocate for a better telling of Richmond’s Black history in public spaces.

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who represents Richmond and lives in the neighborhood, said the idea of the removal had long felt “impossible,” though that began to shift after Floyd’s murder, when the area around the statute became a hub for the growing protest movement and saw occasional clashes between police and demonstrators. The pedestal has been covered by constantly evolving, colorful graffiti, with many of the hand-painted messages denouncing police and demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.

“I physically felt in the air hope, if that makes sense, because I saw multigenerational, multiracial people chanting to take it down and demanding change,” said McClellan, who is Black.

The changes to Monument Avenue have remade the prestigious boulevard, which is lined with mansions and tony apartments and is partly preserved as a National Historic Landmark district.

Northam, who after a 2019 scandal involving a racist photo in his medical school yearbook pledged to spend the rest of his term addressing Virginia’s racial inequalities, has tapped the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to lead a community-driven redesign for the whole avenue.

Christy S. Coleman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the former president and chief operating officer of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, said she saw Wednesday’s removal as a historical moment in the city’s long-running struggle with how to tell its history.

That effort “is perfectly normal for communities to do — question who and what they are, what they value and how they want those values to be reflected, not only in the landscape, but in its laws,” she said.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

(19) comments

Mike Johnson

OK, so now all those people who had been obsessing over its removal will see a significant improvement in their lives after it is gone. I would like to see how their lives have improved, I hope they report the significant life improvements they are experiencing......[lol][lol][lol]

Jim Klukkert

Well Mike, I will feel better about walking the streets where such statues are gone in two ways.

1. I don't have to see the faces of slavers, faces that proclaim white supremacy and racism.

2. The empty pedestals will remind me that though the arc of history is long, it does bend towards justice.

You mis-characterize our concern for statues of slavers in OUR public spaces. We never obsessed. That is only your assumption, and not worthy of the man I believe you to be.

I and my fellows are heartened by the removal of these symbols, and will re-double our efforts to have real justice follow upon the heels of symbolic justice.

Mike Johnson

There are people here who obsessed over the obelisk (isn't that obvious?) as something they think celebrated something they disagreed about, I see no difference here Jim. And I do not think removing these things is going to change anything significant about America, short or long term, but if you do, I'm OK with that, I hope you are right and it is that simple.

Jim Klukkert

I do agree that there are good people who have obsessed over the horrible destruction of the obelisk. I am one of those who was so proud of the way a then anonymous community member dealt with the offensive language some years ago. I remain offended that a bunch of self-appointed do-gooders toppled what was until recently, a great prop for teachable moments for the uninitiated.

I am all about history, as you and others know, and also a great fan of democracy and due process. None of those issues have been correctly handled.

Removing the statues in Richmond has been a long and thoughtful process, that is the essential difference, though other factors, such as Richmond being the one time capitol if the enslaver's traitorous breakaway state, might be engaged in a longer conversation.

I know you share my hopes for better days ahead for all, and for that I am glad.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup] Thanks Jim, we do agree here.

Mark Ortiz

Jim, thanks for taking the time to addressing posters oversimplification, lack of ability to even want to walk in another's shoes, and out and out ignorance.

Jim Klukkert

[cool][thumbup]

arthur lynn

Let's Erase all our history so we can repeat it !!

Jim Klukkert

arthur lynn- more simplistic sloganeering from the Alt-Right. No, it is not that the Faux News message machine is stupid. Rather the Faux News message machine generates these sorts of slogans so as to confuse the issues and the electorate.

"This is about erasing history," Faux News says, when actually the history of today is being written to say "the people of the 2020's chose to remove monuments that glorified the oppression of enslaved peoples; instead choosing to remember the suffering and struggles of those enslaved on the march towards Freedom and Justice."

The spreaders of these messages, not so smart, perhaps? Definitely on the wrong side of history.

Mark Ortiz

Jim, thanks for taking the time to addressing posters oversimplification, lack of ability to even want to walk in another's shoes, and out and out ignorance.

Jarratt Applewhite

I'm very glad the statue is off its pedestal. The cutting up part, I'm less sure about. Humans have committed despicable acts since forever. They are as much a part of history as noble ones. The trend of trashing our history out of indignation worries me. The reason some Holocaust death camps are preserved is to remind us that we are capable of true evil. I wouldn't have objected if our Plaza obelisk was removed after a procedurally just process. But I would mourn if it were not preserved for my grandkids to see,

Jim Klukkert

Jarratt Applewhite- These memorials to the heroes of the South, white men who fought to maintain the enslavement of human beings, were put up in concert with the roll-back of rights of African-Americans. These statues were less about teaching history than they were about signaling the triumph of public policies: white supremacy and the re-subjugation of African-Americans.

As totems of public policy, they are subject to recall, just as much as those policies are subject to revision.

Your reference to the preservation of Holocaust death camps is misplaced. The Death Camps were never objects of veneration displayed for the public. Those camps that are preserved are done with major efforts to provide the grisly, horrific details of the suffering and death that was their purpose. Try doing that with these monuments that were erected with great fanfare to recall the glory days of "The Lost Cause."

No one has yet suggested that we create historical parks around these monuments to slavery. The suggestion that some of these statues be moved to museums is the correct solution to these abominations. We can melt the rest down to pay reparations.

Mark Ortiz

Jim, thanks for taking the time to addressing posters oversimplification, lack of ability to even want to walk in another's shoes, and out and out ignorance.

Joseph Hempfling

WHAT NEXT REMOVING THE CRUCIFIXES FROM CHURCHS BECAUSE THEY REMIND US OF MAN'S INHUMANITY TO MAN/GOD ? IT IS IN OUR HEARTS THAT MEMORIES REMAIN NOT ON PEDESTALS, EVEN OF IGNORANCE.

Jim Klukkert

Wow Joseph Hempfling! You really want to equate crucifixes with a statue of a racist traitor who enslaved human beings? A statue erected to proclaim, celebrate and extend white supremacism with objects of prayerful veneration?

Maybe you should check with a priest on that, Mr. Hempfling.

Mark Ortiz

Jim, thanks for taking the time to addressing posters oversimplification, lack of ability to even want to walk in another's shoes, and out and out ignorance.

Steve Boyles

I believe that statue was on public land, churches would be on private land. I've never seen a case where the government (all of us) has taken a religious symbol from private property.

Mike Johnson

There was an interesting case where a cross first erected on private land became public land, and the cross was to be removed, ACLU spearheaded the case. But at the end of the day, SCOTUS made everything right again.....https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/mojave-cross/

David Ford

That's exactly what the history of religion has shown us!

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