Elated crowd cheered the removal of the bronze monument to Confederate general, erected more than 130 years ago in Richmond
The crew strapped red and blue harnesses to the Lee figure and his horse. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
The Guardian-David Smith in Richmond
For 131 years it loomed over Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of America’s slave-owning south, sending a chilling message about the resilience of white supremacy to generations that passed beneath.
But at 8.55am on Wednesday, daylight reappeared between a giant statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee and its granite pedestal, now covered with Black Lives Matter graffiti. In warm sunshine the towering sculpture was hoisted by work crews and lowered to the ground amid cheers, songs and whoops from a watching crowd.
No one believed that the final humbling of insurrectionist Lee or the removal of a bronze monument, albeit one of the biggest to the Confederacy, was going to fix systemic racism overnight. But in the moment there was elation after a decades-long campaign galvanised by last year’s racial justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in faraway Minneapolis.
“It’s a beautiful day for democracy,” said a 47-year-old man who gave his name as Rig and carried a monochrome version of the Stars and Stripes that bore the words “Black Lives Matter” and a raised fist.
“It’s time for us to be honest about our history. Germany has zero statues of Hitler or Rommel. They learned the lesson and we have to learn the lesson: we cannot coddle white supremacy in this country.”
Lee was the most prominent southern general in the 1861-65 civil war that ended in victory for the Union led by President Abraham Lincoln. But decades after the conflict hundreds of Confederate statues were erected in a sweeping reassertion of white power, often in the cities with the biggest African American populations.
The 21ft high equestrian statue of Lee was made in France by sculptor Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercie and is considered a “masterpiece”, according to its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, where it has been listed since 2007.
When the statue arrived in 1890, an estimated 10,000 Virginians used wagons to haul its pieces more than a mile to Monument Avenue where, by contrast, Wednesday’s swift removal was livestreamed through the Facebook and Twitter accounts of Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam.
For more than a century the statue was a constant reminder to Richmond’s Black residents of generational slavery. Four years ago Mitch Landrieu, then the mayor of New Orleans, where another Lee statue was removed in 2017, wondered what it would be like for African American parents to explain to their daughter why Lee stood atop their city. “Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E Lee is there to encourage her?” he asked. “Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story?”
Civil rights activists had long called for the Lee statue in Richmond to be removed only to run into a brick wall with city and state officials. But after Floyd’s death sparked a nationwide uprising during the presidency of Donald Trump, the area around the statue became a hub for protests and occasional clashes with police.
Lee’s pedestal has been covered by constantly evolving, colorful graffiti, with many of the painted messages denouncing police and demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.
Three other huge Confederate statues on Monument Avenue were removed last summer and Northam ordered that Lee should meet the same fate, citing the pain felt across the country over the death of Floyd. His plans were tied up in litigation until the supreme court of Virginia cleared the way last week.
This was a physical monument but the mental monument of white supremacy remains. We have to remove it in our schools by teaching the real history
Russell Tee, 38
Early on Wednesday morning the state brought in a deconstruction crew surrounded by a heavy police presence to strap the statue to a crane. Police officers closed streets for blocks around the state-owned traffic circle in Richmond, using heavy equipment and crowd-control barriers to keep people away.
Just before 9am, a construction worker who strapped harnesses around Lee and his horse lifted his arms in the air and counted down: “Three, two, one!” There were excited shouts from hundreds of people watching, with little sign of counterprotests. Some chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” and sang, “Hey hey hey, goodbye!”
Arianna Coghill, an African American woman who has lived in Richmond for six years, recorded the scene on her phone. “It’s always been very difficult to see symbols glorifying people who brought my ancestors literally in chains,” she said. “And it’s difficult to see people still defend them. Like, who’s paying you?!”
Coghill, 24, added: “It’s a big moment for us as a country but I hope it doesn’t become whitewashed. I hope the many activists, including Black women, who worked so hard to have this taken down get their flowers at the end of the day.”
Goad Gatsby, who lives close by and has been arrested and teargassed at protests here, said: “This was a statue created to attract defenders of white supremacy. It represented that the descendants of plantation owners are still the ones in power. The fact it’s removed: this neighbourhood is going to be safer, our world is going to be safer.”
Gatsby, 35, a cook, had seen previous Confederate monuments removed “so seeing the final boss of this area go down is nice”, he added.
There were also notes of caution in a country where, just eight months ago, a Trump supporter carried the Confederate flag into the US Capitol in Washington during a deadly insurrection.
Russell Tee, 38, who is white, gripping a Black Lives Matter flag and wearing a T-shirt that said, “Racism is not patriotism”, warned: “This was a physical monument but the mental monument of white supremacy remains. We have to remove it in our schools by teaching the real history.”
A Black man who gave his name only as Abito, 23, got a better view by sitting on top of his car alongside a young woman and her dog. Abito said: “Dealing with the racist shit I’ve had to all my life, it’s a big reversal seeing this go away.
“As much as we approve of the statue being down, we’re going to make sure we get justice every single day. We have the power. That ain’t gonna change. At the end of the day, we deserved this but we deserve more.”
Stu Smith, 48, who is African American, also urged that the symbolic gesture be kept in perspective. “There’s a lot more problems beside this stupid monument,” he said. “What happens after they take this down? Nothing’s going to change.
“But liberals like their little trophies. This is lip service to something that should have happened a long time ago under many Democratic governors and mayors. It’s inconsequential to me but I’m glad everybody’s having a good day.”
Even so, at the moment the statue was lifted off its pedestal, Smith could not help exclaiming, “Wow!”
Workers sawed off the torso of Lee and loaded it on to a flatbed truck. The statue pieces will be hauled to an undisclosed state-owned facility until a decision is made about its final location. The pedestal will remain for now, although workers are expected to remove decorative plaques and extricate a time capsule on Thursday.
Scores of Confederate monuments have come down since the death of Floyd but Kevin Levin, a Boston-based civil war historian and author of Searching for Black Confederates, said: “The removal of the Robert E Lee monument in Richmond is the most significant Confederate monument removal to date given its size, its location in the former capital of the Confederacy, and the importance of Lee to the Lost Cause narrative.
“The push to remove these monuments over the past few years is a reminder that their dedication roughly 100 years ago could not have happened outside of a Jim Crow culture and legalized segregation. Though the Lost Cause myth still has plenty of support in certain circles, it no longer unites white Americans politically as it once did.”
A statue of the African American tennis hero and Richmond native Arthur Ashe, erected in 1996, still stands on Monument Avenue. But what should become of Lee now? Rig opined: “Blow it up! They could put it on pay-per-view and I would definitely pay to see that. Blow it sky high!”