Activists hail Lee statue removal, say more work remains

Historian: Robert E. Lee statue 'was a segregation selling point'
Posted at 9:15 PM, Sep 12, 2021

RICHMOND, Va. -- When an enormous statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee was hoisted off its pedestal Wednesday in the former capital of the Confederacy and carted off to storage, many civil rights activists saw it as a step toward a more inclusive Virginia, if only a symbolic one.

In interviews, activists across generations celebrated the development but said work remains to both address systemic societal inequities and tell a more complete story of Richmond’s history in its public spaces.

Here are the perspectives of some of those advocates:

Elizabeth Johnson Rice

When she watched the Lee statue come down from its pedestal, Elizabeth Johnson Rice was amazed at how seeing it from a new perspective emphasized just how massive the bronze figure was.

The 21-foot-tall statue depicting Lee on horseback in military attire was put up after the Civil War, erected in honor of a losing general who surrendered, said Rice, a member of the “Richmond 34” group of Virginia Union University students who in 1960 staged a sit-in to protest segregation at a downtown department store.

“And even with that loss, they wanted to make it higher than anything else,” she said of the statue, which was cut into two pieces and hauled away to an undisclosed storage site. What will be done with it in the future is unclear.

Rice noted the contrast between the immensity of the Lee statue and a far more modest tribute to the sit-in that she was part of, which led to one of the first mass arrests of the civil rights movement. She and many other advocates say Richmond should work to elevate how its Black history is told in public spaces.

“Even to this day, people still don’t know about the Richmond 34,” said Rice, who is 80.

A key priority for many advocates is a more substantial memorialization in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood of Richmond’s pivotal role in the lucrative domestic slave trade. That effort is in progress but moving at a glacial pace.

Henry Marsh III

Henry Marsh III, a civil rights attorney who in 1977 became Richmond’s first Black mayor, said he was personally pleased to see the Lee statue removed. But he also felt there should still be room for people to acknowledge or even appreciate other parts of Lee’s nonmilitary legacy, including his time after the war as the president of Washington & Lee University in Lexington.

Marsh said the now-removed statues were great works of art - and they attracted rich people on prestigious Monument Avenue, he added with a chuckle. He said he hoped the Lee statue will be moved to a place where people who so choose could still view it.

“I think we have to keep learning,” said Marsh, 87.

As for the future of Monument Avenue, which used to be home to four other giant Confederate monuments before the city disassembled them last summer, he cautioned against any move to install new statues in the future.

“I think there’s a problem with idolizing people with statues,” Marsh said. “Because times change.”

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the statue after protests erupted in Richmond and nationwide over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

State officials have said they want to leave the Lee statue pedestal in place, at least for now, with the expectation that a community-involved rethinking of the whole of Monument Avenue will kick off soon.

The Rev. Benjamin Campbell

The Rev. Benjamin Campbell, an Episcopal priest and longtime civil rights activist, was involved in a push to erect a statue in honor of tennis legend, Richmond native and humanitarian Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue in the 1990s.

The dedication of that statue in 1996, after a long, sometimes tense fight, was of immense importance, to “give you an indication of what the civil rights community considered a victory at that time,” he said in an interview.

The Lee statue removal was also a step of significance, but a symbolic one, Campbell said.

“You have enormous issues of structural racism. ... Removing the symbols of it from the ground does not remove the structures,” he said.

The city now needs to turn its attention to issues such as a tax structure that disproportionately affects lower-income people and its “absolute failure to provide equity in public education,” said Campbell, who is 80.

The capital city has some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, and recent efforts to address persistent segregation have been met with organized parental resistance.

Joseph Rogers

Joseph Rogers, a descendant of enslaved people, community activist and historian, felt a jumble of emotions as he stood in a public viewing area and watched the statue be pulled off its pedestal.

Rogers’ great-, great-, great-grandfather was born enslaved and went on to become a successful lawyer who served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1889 to 1890.

“Seeing the removal ... and knowing that James was in Richmond when it went up, serving in the Virginia legislature and putting his last bill forward, it was a moment, it was a momentous occasion,” he said.

“To say the least, it was a lot of complicated feelings seeing all of those connections of over 130 years come together,” Rogers said.

Rogers, 31, is an organizer with the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, and has advocated for police reforms and affordable housing.

“We’re taking a step in the right direction ... but there’s a lot of work to be done. It gives us a road map of what can be done, time to unravel more than two centuries of racist narratives that underlie our understanding of the United States,” he said.