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Confederate memorials quietly removed from Virginia Capitol overnight

A statue of Robert E. Lee stood in the Old House Chamber at Virginia's State Capitol. Workers arrived late Thursday night to remove it under orders from House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn. D-Fairfax.

KATHERINE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

By GREGORY S. SCHNEIDER | The Washington Post | Published: July 24, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. — Workers wielding power tools and huge rolls of bubble wrap carted a life-size statue of Robert E. Lee and busts of seven of his Confederate colleagues out of the Virginia Capitol late Thursday night and early Friday morning.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, ordered the removals from the historic Capitol's Old House Chamber, the room where rebel lawmakers met when Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy.

"Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants," Filler-Corn said in an emailed statement, condemning the Confederate ideology as based on maintaining slavery. "Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth's whole history."

She announced the formation of an advisory group to propose new types of memorials for the Thomas Jefferson-designed Capitol building.

The removals, under darkness and in secrecy, eliminated symbols that had largely escaped the recent public outcry over monuments to racial repression. Richmond's Capitol Square has been tightly guarded over the past month and a half as protesters have gathered in the streets, night after night, spray painting statues around the city and toppling some with ropes.

With the state locked in a court battle over Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's plans to take down a grand statue of Lee on the city's Monument Avenue, Filler-Corn took a page from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's playbook and simply acted without announcing it first. Stoney has removed more than a dozen Confederate memorials around the city, though a court injunction has prevented him from getting one remaining statue, of Gen. A.P. Hill.

Filler-Corn informed a handful of colleagues in Democratic leadership and worked with House Clerk Suzette Denslow to arrange logistics. The House hired a Pennsylvania company to handle the move, but would not disclose the name of the company or the cost of the work.

Filler-Corn said her role as Speaker gives her authority over decorations and furnishings in the House-controlled parts of the Capitol. Denslow hand-carried a letter to Northam on Thursday informing him of the actions.

The removals took place late at night to prevent disruptions and keep the workers safe from any potential protests, Filler-Corn's office said. A few reporters were allowed to watch part of the process under agreement not to publish until it was complete Friday morning.

By 9 p.m. Thursday, busts of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee (who served as governor of Virginia 20 years after the Civil War) and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart sat on the floor near a back door of the Capitol, ready to be crated up and loaded onto a waiting truck.

Workers upstairs in the Old House Chamber lifted a bust of Confederate navy leader Matthew Fontaine Maury and set it onto a dolly. With Denslow and a Capitol Police officer looking on, the workers rolled the dolly out into the rotunda and past the famous Houdon statue of George Washington, with cardboard sheets taped down to protect the black and white stone floor tiles.

Also up for removal were busts of Stonewall Jackson, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and Confederate president Jefferson Davis and vice president Alexander Stephens. In addition, workers took down a plaque honoring Thomas Bocock, who served as rebel Speaker of the House.

At one point workers began removing a plaque beneath the bust of frontiersman Andrew Lewis, before someone pointed out that he was not on the list.

By far the most challenging task was removing the figure of Lee, a 900-pound bronze that stood on the spot where he accepted command of Virginia's armed forces in 1861. That one came down last, around 4:30 a.m. Friday, Filler-Corn spokesman Jake Rubenstein said.

Most of the sculptures were installed long after the Civil War ended. Lee was erected in 1931 after a campaign led by former governor Harry Flood Byrd Sr. The large marble busts of Davis and Stephens went up in the 1950s, gifts of the states of Mississippi (Davis) and Georgia (Stephens).

The earliest bust was that of Stuart, given to the state by the general's family in 1872.

Filler-Corn appointed Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to head what she said would be a bipartisan advisory board to decide what to do with the vanquished figures and recommend new memorials.

Plenty of other historic events happened in the Old House Chamber, where delegates met until the Capitol — completed around 1788 — was expanded in 1904 with the addition of two wings housing new legislative chambers.

Chief Justice John Marshall presided here over the treason trial (and acquittal) of Vice President Aaron Burr in 1807. In 1870, a trial for a Richmond mayor accused of scandal drew so many spectators that an upstairs courtroom collapsed down into the House chamber, killing 62 people and injuring 251.

Virginia's secession convention met in the chamber in 1861. Just six years later, after the capital fell, free blacks met here with whites to draw up a new state constitution under Reconstruction. The state's first African American delegates met here — until Jim Crow laws pushed them out of power for nearly a century more.

Today the room is a museum, outfitted with the small wooden desks of long ago. It houses the golden mace used to ceremonially begin each day the House of Delegates is in session. And on Thursday night, a copy of an engraving depicting the state's first black lawmakers stood on a stand in the front of the chamber, looking on as the physical remains of the Confederacy were finally hauled away.

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