A Court Has Temporarily Blocked Virginia’s Governor From Removing Its Notorious Robert E. Lee Monument

The governor wants to remove the statue “as soon as possible.” But a descendant of an old Virginia family has other ideas.

Protesters gather around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue on June 6, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia, amidst protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images.
Protesters gather around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue on June 6, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia, amidst protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images.

Last week, the governor of Virginia pledged to take down a notorious 130-year-old monument memorializing Confederate commander Robert E. Lee in Richmond. But it looks like the statue—and those who support it—won’t go down without a fight. Following a lawsuit brought by a descendant of an old Virginia family, a judge has temporarily blocked the state from removing it.

Yesterday afternoon, a circuit court judge in the city issued an injunction against Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and the state’s director of the Department of General Services, Joe Damico, preventing the two men from moving the 21-foot-tall monument for 10 days. The order declares that the state is party to a deed from 1890 wherein the Commonwealth of Virginia agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the object and the ground on which it sits.

The complaint was filed by a lawyer working on behalf of William C. Gregory, a descendent of two signers of the deed. 

People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4, 2020, amid continued protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. Photo: Ryan M. Kelly / AFP via Getty Images.

People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4, 2020, amid continued protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. Photo: Ryan M. Kelly / AFP via Getty Images.

“[Gregory’s] family has taken pride for 130 years in this statue resting upon land belonging to his family and transferred to the Commonwealth in consideration of the Commonwealth contractually guaranteeing to perpetually care for and protect the Lee Monument,” the complaint states, according to the Associated Press.

An official copy of the injunction has not yet been provided by the court, but an image of the document was circulated by the Monument Avenue Preservation Group, an association that, according its Facebook page, seeks to “preserve, protect, maintain, and celebrate the Civil War commemorative monuments on Richmond’s Monument Ave.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said his staff was reviewing the order but maintained the statue would come down. “Governor Northam remains committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia’s capital city, and we’re confident in his authority to do so,” the spokesperson told Artnet News. 

 Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference on June 4, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Gov. Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced plans to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference on June 4, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Gov. Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced plans to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

News that Virginia’s governor intended to take down the memorial was seen as a key development in the renewed push to reckon with the history of Confederate and racist monuments amid the ongoing protests following the death of George Floyd.

“It’s time to acknowledge the reality of institutional racism, even if you can’t see it,” Northam said last week. “Public policies have kept this reality in place for a long time. But symbols matter too, and Virginia has never been willing to deal with symbols—until now.” 

A crew from the Department of General Services, which the governor tasked with removing the Lee memorial, inspected the statue Monday morning as it planned the removal.

Last year, Virginia’s General Assembly overturned a longstanding state law that prevented municipalities from removing monuments. Cities across the state, including Richmond, have already announced plans to remove their own Confederate memorials when the new law goes into effect July 1. Unlike other statues in Richmond, however—including those memorializing J. E. B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, all due for removal next month—the Lee statue is owned by the state. 


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