Crews have begun work to remove the pedestal that used to hold the Lee statue in Richmond. On Sunday, Governor Ralph Northam announced that the pedestal would be removed to storage in a process lasting through December, and that after the pedestal was removed, the land underneath would be given to the City of Richmond. On Monday evening, the pedestal was surrounded by scaffolding.

“This land is in the middle of Richmond, and Richmonders will determine the future of this space,” Northam said in the press release. “The Commonwealth will remove the pedestal and we anticipate a safe removal and a successful conclusion to this project.”

Richmond’s Monument Avenue used to feature a series of monuments to Confederate officials at multiple intersections. In 1996, a statue of Richmond tennis star Arthur Ashe was added. In 2020, Richmond removed most of the statues from their pedestals, leaving only Ashe and Lee. The circle of land in the middle of the avenue and the monument itself are state property; the Lee statue was removed to storage in two pieces in September.

During the summer of 2020, protesters spray painted the pedestals, renamed Lee Circle the Marcus-David Peters Circle, and planted a community garden in the grassy area around its base. Memorials to people killed by police and other art were placed around the base. During much of 2021, the state kept the circle fenced off. When Lee was removed, so were the artworks and memorials for storage at the Library of Virginia. Some Richmonders think the pedestal should remain in its current painted condition as a piece of historically-significant protest art.

I was hoping it would be moved to city property but removing the public art is hustling backwards. Name me one city that would take a non oppressive work of art that put it on the global map down. Why are we trying to ‘reimagine’ what the people already reimagined,” former candidate for Richmond City Council Allan-Charles Chipman tweeted.

When Richmond removed its monuments, Northam asked the city to leave the pedestals in place during an effort to artistically re-imagine the historic district.

In a June letter to a Richmond commission, Northam Chief of Staff Clark Mercer wrote, “Very strong arguments have been made as to why the pedestals should remain; they have artistic value in and of themselves, though also are important symbols that help us tell the story of what has happened in these spaces.”

“Perhaps at the end of the planning process it will be decided that the pedestals should be removed, though once they are removed there is really very little practical chance that they would be returned to the avenue,” he said in the letter. “[W]e see no requirement that the pedestals have to be treated in the same way as the monuments that sit on top of them.”

Some Republicans have called for the monuments to be restored. Northam is at the end of his term as governor, and will be replaced by Republican Glenn Youngkin. Republicans will also control the House of Delegates and be able to decide ties in the Democratic Senate. Northam’s decision to remove the pedestal to storage and cede the land to Democrat-led Richmond will block Republicans from control of the controversial circle of land.

Youngkin hasn’t commented much about the monuments or about what should be done with the pedestal. When asked for comment about Northam removing the pedestal and placing the land under city control, a Youngkin spokesperson pointed to the governor-elect’s September statement on the Lee Monument.

“The Supreme Court in fact has ruled on this and the statue is going to come down and I hope they move it to a battlefield or a museum so we don’t lose the fact that we have a history and we all need to know it,” he said.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network.  Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Ralph Northam” by Governor of Virginia. Background Photo “Lee Monument Pedestal” by Anthony Crider. CC BY 2.0.