A towering bronze depiction of General Robert E Lee – one of the largest Confederate statues in the US – has been removed from its pedestal in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy.
The 21ft (6m) statue of Lee on a horse had topped a huge granite base twice that tall in a prominent residential boulevard named Monument Avenue for more than 130 years. The pedestal was smothered in graffiti during anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
After years of resistance and a long court battle, Virginia governor Ralph Northam ordered the statue taken down last summer, citing the pain felt across the country over the death of Floyd. But until a recent court ruling cleared the way, Northam’s plans had been tied up in litigation.
Crews began work before 8am on Wednesday. Two public viewing areas were set up, with only limited visibility. A crowd of about 200 people chanted “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!” as the work crew, dwarfed by the size of the statue, strapped red and blue harnesses to the Lee figure and his horse.
Memorials to the pro-slavery Confederacy – the southern states which revolted against the federal government during the civil war – have long been criticized. Hundreds of statues of famous Confederate figures still exist throughout the US.
Virginia brought in a deconstruction crew surrounded by a heavy police presence to strap the statue to a crane. State, capitol and city police officers closed streets for blocks around the state-owned traffic circle in Richmond, using heavy equipment and crowd-control barriers to keep crowds away.
“This is a historic moment for the city of Richmond. The city, the community at large is saying that we’re not going to stand for these symbols of hate in our city anymore. And it was important for me to be here to see this historic moment,” said Rachel Smucker, 28, a Richmond resident who was at the viewing site early Wednesday with her sister.
Smucker, who is white, said she moved to Richmond around three years ago. It was her first time living in the south, and she found Monument Avenue “jarring”.
“I’ve always found it to be offensive, as a symbol of protecting slavery and the racism that people of color still face today,” Smucker said.
The statue had stood among four other large Confederate statues on the avenue, but the city removed the others last summer.
“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” Northam said in June last year, when he announced the removal plan. “Think about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children.”
Plans called for the statue to be cut into at least two pieces and hauled to an undisclosed state-owned facility until a decision is made about its final disposition. The pedestal is to remain for the time being, although workers are expected to remove decorative plaques and extricate a time capsule on Thursday.
After Floyd’s death, the area around the statute became a hub for protests and occasional clashes between police and demonstrators. The pedestal has been covered by constantly evolving, colorful graffiti, with many of the hand-painted messages denouncing police and demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.