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Richmond's Robert E. Lee Statue Is Set To Be Removed, Sent To Storage

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the country's largest Confederate monuments is coming down today. In Richmond, Va., state officials are preparing to deconstruct the massive statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This comes after more than a year of legal disputes between a group of residents who want the statue to stay where it is and the governor, who ordered it be taken down. VPM's Whittney Evans is in Richmond and following the removal. She joins us now. Whittney, thanks for being here. Can you just tell us where you are, what you're seeing?

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Yeah, of course. I'm on Richmond's historic Monument Avenue, where, until this year, there were several statues dedicated to the Confederacy. But they've almost all come down. This statue of Robert E. Lee is one of two that are left here in Richmond. But as you mentioned, it's one of the largest two - biggest Confederate monuments in the U.S. It's 40 feet tall on its pedestal, and the statue weighs 12 tons. And now, the state's making this removal a huge event today. Roads are closed. I'm actually surrounded by barriers and law enforcement. Governor Ralph Northam will be streaming this on his social media pages. And people started arriving last night to get a final look, but it's pretty quiet right now.

MARTIN: Am I right that this has been made into sort of a makeshift honorarium for the Black Lives Matter movement? Isn't there - what does it look like?

EVANS: It's - I mean, it's iconic. This image has spread all over social media. You know, you can imagine a 40-foot-tall statue on a pedestal that is just covered in graffiti.

MARTIN: Right. How long's it been there?

EVANS: It went up in the late 19th century. And for nonhistory buffs, there was a period after the Civil War where the South developed a sort of mythology to help it deal with its defeat. And that's the idea that the war was not fought over slavery, but rather, states' rights. This is around the same time that Jim Crow laws were being passed that created different rules for white and Black people.

MARTIN: And I mean, it's such a part of Monument Avenue, right? How do you expect that street to change when it's gone?

EVANS: It's already changed a lot. The statue and the traffic circle where it stands, like you said, were taken over by protesters last summer during the George Floyd protests. The monument became a destination for a lot of people, a community gathering place for people who may not have ever stepped foot on the property had it not been for these protests. The statue's become more of an afterthought at this point when you consider how the pedestal and the property has been transformed.

MARTIN: Why did it take so long considering all that public pressure?

EVANS: Yeah. Attorneys have spent the last year defending Northam's call in June of 2020 to remove the statue. Several residents who live on Monument Avenue sued the state over this. They said they didn't think the governor had the authority to take it down. A descendant of the family who gave the statue to the state also came forward with a lawsuit. He said removing the statue violates the original deeds that said the state has to guard it and care for it, quote, unquote, "affectionately." But last week, the Supreme Court of Virginia tossed out those arguments, saying the state can't be held hostage by these 19th-century documents that, frankly, represent a period in history that Virginians no longer identify with. The laws have changed in the last 130-odd years, and so have Virginians' minds about the Confederacy.

MARTIN: All right. VPM's Whittney Evans reporting live from Richmond, Va. Thank you so much.

EVANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBSTANTIAL'S "WISHING WELL (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.