Statue of Robert E Lee quietly removed from DC, may be replaced with sculpture of civil rights activist

Statue of Robert E Lee quietly removed from DC, may be replaced with sculpture of civil rights activist
Statue of Robert E Lee in the U.S. Capitol. Photo: Jack Mayer, Office of Governor Northam.
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A statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee has been removed from Washington DC following a summer that saw tensions over police brutality reach a breaking point. The monument is one of many around the world that have received renewed attention as cities face divided opinions on monuments honouring people with problematic pasts and what to do with them. The Lee statue may now be replaced with a statue of civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns.

The statue is a life-size bronze depiction of Lee that was created by Edward Virginius Valentine in 1909. Since its creation, the statue stood in the crypt of the National Statuary Hall in DC where 13 statues represented the 13 original colonies. The Valentine sculpture was one of two statues at the National Statuary Hall representing Virginia.

A bronze statue of Robert E Lee arrives at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture
The statue of Robert E Lee arriving at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond. Courtesy of the museum.

After 111 years, the statue of Lee was removed last week before heading back to the general’s home state of Virginia. An eight-person committee, selected over the summer by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, was tasked with overseeing the removal. The commission ultimately asked the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond to become the new home for the memorial, although that won’t be the end of questions around the Lee statue.

The museum was a natural fit for the statue as the building which houses the museum was once the Confederate Memorial Institute. Built in 1921, the building was a memorial to Confederate soldiers that lost their lives during the US Civil War. In 1946, the building was acquired by the Virginia Historical Society, which would become the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. The museum is currently closed for renovations but when it reopens in 2022, the Lee statue will be on display, although Northam’s committee did not mandate the statue’s display.

“Since we first learned that the statue may come to the museum, we had always intended to display it. There was never a thought of simply putting it in storage and hiding or holding onto it simply for posterity,” said Andre Tolkov, senior director of cultural affairs for the museum, told Artnet News. Tolkov continued stating that the choice to display the monument was not condoning Lee and the Confederacy, but to present the statue in an informed manner. “We’re not going to decide […] It’ll be our society that decides how they want to handle these types of monuments in the future.”

Black and white photo of civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns
Barbara Rose Johns’ high school graduation photo from 1952, just a year after she led a student strike against segregation. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As for what will replace the statue at the National Statuary Hall, the committee has nominated that civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns represent the state. Johns was integral in the fight to desegregate schools in the US and in 1951, at just 16 years old, she organized a student strike seeking equality. The strike was backed by the NAACP and eventually consolidated into the landmark Brown s. Board of Education case wherein the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

In January, the Virginia General Assembly will vote to approve the Johns statue. If approved, the committee will move ahead with selecting an artist to create the work.

“As a teenager, Barbara Johns bravely led a protest that defied segregation and challenged the barriers that she and her African American peers faced, ultimately dismantling them,” Northam said in a statement. “I am proud that her statue will represent Virginia in the U.S. Capitol, where her idealism, courage, and conviction will continue to inspire Virginians, and Americans, to confront inequities and fight for meaningful change now and for generations to come.”

In June, Northam announced that an equestrian statue of Lee – which served as the inspiration for a sculpture by Kehinde Wiley – located along Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Row would be removed. However, that process has slowed as efforts were made to block Northam’s decision and now, the statue’s removal is in the midst of a legal dispute. Virginia has removed a number of Confederate monuments in recent months and isn’t the only state grappling with how to handle such statues.