RICHMOND, Va. - A towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, is expected to be taken down on Wednesday as a symbol of racial injustice, more than 130 years after it was erected in tribute to the South’s Civil War leader.
While many other Confederate symbols across the South have been removed without public announcements beforehand to avoid unruly crowds, Gov. Ralph Northam's office is expecting a multitude and plans to livestream the event on social media.
Northam announced plans to take down the statue in June 2020, 10 days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. The plans were stalled for more than a year by two lawsuits filed by residents opposed to its removal, but rulings last week by the Supreme Court of Virginia cleared the way for the statue to be taken down.
Patrick McSweeney, an attorney for plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, said Monday that he plans to notify the high court that he will ask for a rehearing, but such requests are rarely granted. From 2016 through 2020, the court granted rehearings in just two of the 86 requests it received, said L. Steven Emmert, an appellate attorney who publishes a website focusing on appellate rulings in Virginia.
"The chances are extremely remote," Emmert said.
The imposing, 21-foot tall bronze likeness of Lee on a horse sits atop a granite pedestal nearly twice that high in the grassy center of a traffic circle on Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue.
"Virginia’s largest monument to the Confederate insurrection will come down this week," Northam said in a news release on Monday. "This is an important step in showing who we are and what we value as a commonwealth."
In Monday's news release, state officials said that preparations for the statue's removal will begin 6 p.m. Tuesday when crews will install protective fencing.
Once the statue is hoisted off the pedestal, it's expected to be cut into two pieces for transport, although the final plan is subject to change, said Dena Potter, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of General Services.
After the statue is taken down Wednesday, crews on Thursday will remove plaques from the base of the monument and will replace a time capsule that is believed to be there.
In Richmond, a city that was the capital of the Confederacy for much of the Civil War, the Lee statue became the epicenter of last summer’s protest movement. The city has removed more than a dozen other pieces of Confederate statuary on city land since Floyd’s death.
As one of the largest and most recognizable Confederate statues in the country, the removal of the Lee statue is expected to draw large crowds.
Limited viewing opportunities will be available on a first‐come, first‐serve basis, state officials said in Monday's news release. The removal will also be livestreamed through the governor's Facebook and Twitter accounts, both of which have the handle of @governorVA.
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 statue arrived in 1890 from France, an estimated 10,000 Virginians used wagons to haul its pieces more than a mile to where it now stands. White residents celebrated the statue, but many Black residents have long seen it as a monument glorifying slavery.
The Northam administration has said it would seek public input on the statue’s future. The 40-foot granite pedestal will be left behind for now amid efforts to rethink the design of Monument Avenue. Some racial justice advocates don’t want it removed, seeing the graffiti-covered pedestal as a symbol of the protest movement that erupted after Floyd’s killing.
Lawrence West, 38, member of BLM RVA, an activist group that’s been occupying the transformed space at the Lee monument, said he believes the decision to remove the statue was fueled by the work of protesters.
"I mean, it hadn’t come down before. They (Democrats in charge of state government) had all the opportunities in the world."
West said he would like to see the statue site turned into a community space "to cultivate all types of connections between different people."