(Reuters) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, responding to widespread protests decrying racism after the death of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis, ordered on Thursday the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the state’s capital city of Richmond.
Saying the statue should be detached from its pedestal “as soon as possible” by the Department of General Services, the Democratic governor acknowledged the move could stir anger from admirers of the commander, who led troops in a slave-owning state during the American Civil War.
“Yes, that statue has been there for a long time. But it was wrong then and it is wrong now, so we’re taking it down,” Northam told a news conference.
A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of General Services said planning was underway to remove the state-owned statue but no further details were available.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney cheered the governor’s order as Virginia was set to enter Phase Two of its coronavirus reopening plan on Friday, when restaurants and gyms can offer limited indoor service.
“We have two pandemics in this country, COVID-19 and racism,” Stoney said. “One is six months old, the other 400 years old. Both are lethal, especially for black and brown people.”
The move comes after George Floyd’s death on May 25 set off waves of protests and uprisings across the United States and abroad. Four Minneapolis police officers have been criminally charged.
In Richmond, protesters, many wearing face masks to guard against COVID-19 spread, gathered around the defaced statue on Monument Avenue, holding high raised fists and taking a knee in symbolic denunciation of racism. The pedestal, which has been repeatedly vandalized in recent years, this week was disfigured with spray paint reading “Stop White Supremacy” and “ALM,” which means “All Lives Matter.”
Stoney said the governor’s order marked “a new day for our city. And for our Commonwealth.”
“As a 39-year-old black man, the grandson of a housekeeper maid and son of a janitor, I couldn’t be more proud,” Stoney said.
(Writing by Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Aurora Ellis)