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Pelosi orders Juneteenth removal of portraits of House speakers who served in the Confederacy

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Congressman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) attend a press event to unveil the Moving Forward Act on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 18, 2020.

YURI GRIPAS, ABACA PRESS/TNS

By KATHERINE TULLY-MCMANUS | CQ-Roll Call | Published: June 18, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Portraits of former House speakers who served in the Confederacy will no longer hang in the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday.

Pelosi sent a letter to House Clerk Cheryl Johnson requesting the removal of four portraits, a move that follows her request earlier this month that Confederate statues be removed from the National Statuary Hall Collection.

“As I have said before, the halls of Congress are the very heart of our democracy. There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy,” wrote Pelosi.

She is requesting removal of the portraits of Robert Hunter of Virginia, Howell Cobb of Georgia, James Orr of South Carolina and Charles Crisp of Georgia. Hunter, Cobb and Orr all served as speaker before the Civil War and the secession of the Confederate States of America. Crisp served as speaker years after the war in the 1890s.

“We didn’t know about this until we were taking inventory of the statues and the curator told us that there were four paintings of speakers in the Capitol of the United States, four speakers who had served in the confederacy. So tomorrow, Juneteenth, the clerk will oversee the removal of those confederate speakers from the House,” Pelosi said at her weekly press briefing on Thursday.

In her letter, Pelosi described the removal of the portraits as a way to “appropriately observe Juneteenth this year.” Juneteenth marks June 19th, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed the black population there of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Pelosi is calling for action on these Capitol portraits and statues as uprisings and protests continue across the country against police killings of black people.

“The portraits of these men are symbols that set back our nation’s work to confront and combat bigotry,” wrote Pelosi. “Our Congressional community has the sacred opportunity and obligation to make meaningful change to ensure that the halls of Congress reflect our highest ideals as Americans. Let us lead by example.”

Confederates are not the first to have their portraits removed from the Capitol. In 2015, then-Speaker Paul D. Ryan removed former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s portrait from the Speaker’s Lobby after the Illinois Republican pleaded guilty to a hush money scheme covering up sexual misconduct.

There are also discussions on Capitol Hill and at the Defense Department about renaming military bases that honor Confederates. President Donald Trump has said he would not consider renaming any military bases that derive from Confederate figures.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that he is open to the changes, noting as an aside that he is descended from a Confederate veteran.

“I can only speak for myself on this issue, if it’s appropriate to take another look at these names, I’m personally OK with that,” the Kentucky Republican said.

While he does not agree with Pelosi’s earlier moves to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol, he has not yet weighed in on the portraits of former House speakers.

“What I do think is clearly a bridge too far is this nonsense that we need to airbrush the Capitol and scrub out everybody from years ago, who had any connection to slavery,” said McConnell on Tuesday.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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