As It Happens

'Great relief' at planned removal of Robert E. Lee statue: Virginia senator

Virginia's governor has ordered the removal of the confederate general's statue, which has towered over visitors to Richmond for over a century. Democratic state senator Jennifer McClellan says the move is part of telling "a truthful story" about U.S. history.

'I didn’t realize how much of a burden it was until I heard it's coming down,' says Jennifer McClellan

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. (Ryan M. Kelly / AFP via Getty Images)

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Virginia's governor has ordered the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the centre of Richmond, in a move that one Democratic senator says brings "great relief."

The monument to the Confederate general has towered over visitors to Richmond, Va., a former capital of the Confederacy, for nearly 130 years. But on Thursday, Virginia governor Ralph Northam said his state should no longer preach a "false version of history."

"It was a surprise but also a great relief, as if a burden that I didn't fully realize was there has been lifted off my shoulder," said Democratic state senator Jennifer McClellan.

The order to remove the statue followed a week of protests across the U.S. and Canada over the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died at hands of police on May 25. 

Earlier this week, Richmond's mayor Levar Stoney announced he would also seek to remove the four other Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, a National Historic Landmark district in the city. 

McClellan, who is also the Vice Chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what the statue represents to African-Americans, and why the decision to remove it is vital for healing as a nation.

Here is part of their conversation.

Senator McClellan, what does it mean for you personally to hear the governor say this statue will soon be coming down?

As a 47-year-old Black woman, born and raised in the South, you just kind of condition yourself to ignore these monuments and these symbols and all the trauma that they trigger. And then there's certain moments when that trauma bubbles through.

But just the constant, trying to shield yourself from it … I didn't realize how exhausting that was, and how much of a burden it was, until I heard the governor say it's coming down.

Virginia governor Ralph Northam announced plans to remove the statue of the Confederate general, directing the Department of General Services to remove it "as soon as possible." (Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images)

I can't imagine how you could ignore this thing. It's 40 feet of granite pedestal and then a 21-foot statue of Robert E. Lee in the most prominent part of your city. What does that statue symbolize for African-Americans?

[The statue] symbolizes not just the trauma of slavery and the Civil War and everything it represents, but it was put up at a time when Black Americans had gained economic, political and social power and freedom during Reconstruction. And then, right at the end of Reconstruction, as the old South, white power base came back, they put these monuments up as part of this lost-cause narrative to put Black people back in their place, at the same time that they were instituting Jim Crow laws to take away political, social and economic power. So the monuments also symbolize that backlash post-Reconstruction. All of that is wrapped up in just that statue. 

What is it about this moment that has galvanized leaders to act, almost exactly 130 years after this statue went up?

I think it's the latest in a cycle.

At this time, it was almost the straw that broke the camel's back, when people said, "You know what? Enough!" ...I felt a palpable change in the air in the protest.  It's not just enough to protest and say this is wrong, and then go back to life as normal. It's almost as if every generation and every race has been galvanized to finally address not just racism, but systematic inequity that resulted from racism.  

The governor seems to have acknowledged that there are those who regard Robert E. Lee as a man of honour, the statue is said is part of the history. Republican state senator Amanda Chase, who's running for governor, said on Facebook, "This is all about shoving this down people's throats and erasing the history of the white people." What do you say to Senator Chase?

She is absolutely wrong. This is not about erasing history. This is about putting that history in context, and acknowledging that statue is more than just a depiction of Robert E. Lee. Her statement ignores all of the pain and trauma that is wrapped up in that statue. And Black people, and other people of colour, Native Virginians, their history has been erased going on 400 years.

It's now time to tell a complete, truthful story about our history, and that monument was the beginning of the lie to put Black people in their place. The lie of white supremacy. And we have got to acknowledge that if we are ever going to heal as a nation going forward. 

It's almost as if every generation and every race has been galvanized to finally address not just racism, but systematic inequity that resulted from racism.  ​​​​​- Jennifer McClellan, Democratic state senator 

Do you expect there will still be pushback, given previous occasions when it's been proposed to remove [Confederate] statues, those have turned up with lawsuits. Do you think that will happen again?

The right thing might not be the easy thing, but it's still the right thing. And I think that there are more people who believe it is time to move forward to heal than [those who] don't. 

This is perhaps the largest of the Confederate general statues and commemorations to the Confederate side in your city. Do you think the rest of them will start coming down as well?

It wouldn't surprise me. I do think that across Virginia and this country, we need to have these conversations about the monuments and what to do with them — do we put them in context, do we remove them? And that conversation in and of itself should be part of the healing process. So I hope we do continue that conversation, more than just on Monument Avenue. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Olsy Sorokina. Interview produced by Morgan Passi.

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