Virginia Dems pledge to let locals move Confederate statues

Colita Nichols Fairfax, professor of social work, at Norfolk State University, center, speaks during a news conference with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, And Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax, right, at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Northam announced several bills related to Confederate statues as well as issues related to historic African American cemeteries. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, speaks to the medial after a news conference at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Northam announced several bills related to Confederate statues as well as issues related to historic African American cemeteries. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
FILE - This June 27, 2017, file photo, shows the Confederate General Robert E. Lee statue that stands in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. Newly empowered Virginia Democrats pledged Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, to give local governments the ability to remove Confederate monuments, but Gov. Ralph Northam said he is still weighing what to do with perhaps the state's most prominent tribute to Gen. Robert E. Lee. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. — Newly empowered Democratic leaders in Virginia pledged Thursday to let local governments remove Confederate monuments, but Gov. Ralph Northam said he's still weighing what to do with one of the state's most prominent ones — a towering statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

As Virginia wrestles with its Civil War legacy, Northam unveiled multiple initiatives Thursday that he said were aimed at telling a more accurate and inclusive version of the state's past. They include more funding for historic African American cemeteries and cultural sites and the creation of new highway markers.

At a news conference with legislative leaders and state officials, the governor also said he supports removing a statue of Lee that Virginia contributed to the U.S. Capitol grounds, and amending an existing state law that prohibits local governments from removing Confederate War memorials.

“These monuments tell a particular version of history that doesn’t include everyone. In Virginia that version of history has been given prominence and authority for far too long,” Northam said.

But as for an imposing, state-owned statue of Lee that's a centerpiece of a historic street in Richmond — once the capital city of the Confederacy — the governor said “that's an ongoing discussion.”

Lee’s 21-foot (6-meter) statue rises atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall on a grassy circle along Monument Avenue, a prestigious boulevard in the heart of the city.

Monument Avenue, a National Historic Landmark, is also dotted with statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, generals J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury. A statue of black tennis hero Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native, was erected there too in 1996.

Northam's spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky declined to elaborate further about what conversations are ongoing about the Lee monument's future.

Del. Delores McQuinn, a Democrat who represents Richmond, said she agrees that more dialogue is needed about the monument.

“Personally, I want to see additional statutes and monuments put up that would reflect a balanced history," she said.

The long-running debate over whether Confederate monuments are appropriate in public spaces intensified after white supremacists converged on Charlottesville in 2017, in part to protest the city's attempt to move a statue of Lee. The event descended into chaos and a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens more.

Some who want to preserve Confederate monuments say they are works of art and say their removal would amount to erasing history. Critics say they inappropriately glorify the state's legacy of racism and slavery.

House Minority Leader Republican Del. Todd Gilbert said his caucus has bigger priorities than stopping efforts to remove Confederate statues, but warned that Democrats could be setting themselves up for headaches down the road.

“We could go after Woodrow Wilson before this is over. I mean, he was one of the biggest racist presidents in U.S. history,” Gilbert said. “Where this ends, I don’t know.”

Conversations are ongoing in Richmond about what the city will do with the statues it owns. A study commission formed by Mayor Levar Stoney in 2017 issued nonbinding recommendations that called for removing a statue of Jefferson Davis, leaving the rest and adding historical context. That commission's work was then rolled to a second one, which was scheduled to meet this week to discuss how to add the historical context.

Also this week, the Richmond City Council passed a resolution asking the General Assembly for the authority to decide the statues' fate, after defeating similar measures twice in previous years.

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