Civil Rights Activist Replaces Confederate General
Early Monday morning, workers removed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the United States Capitol, where it had stood as a representative of Virginia since 1909. Per a statement from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s office, a sculpture of civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns will replace Lee’s likeness, representing the Old Dominion state alongside George Washington.
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One of 100 sculptures included in the National Statuary Hall Collection, which features two contributions from each state, the Lee statue was housed in the Capitol’s Crypt, where it was installed next to 12 other works representing the 13 original colonies. (Due to space constraints, just 35 sculptures from the collection stand in the eponymous hall; the rest are scattered throughout the historic building.) The statue will now be moved to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond.
“We should all be proud of this important step forward for our Commonwealth and our country,” says Northam in the statement. “The Confederacy is a symbol of Virginia’s racist and divisive history, and it is past time we tell our story with images of perseverance, diversity, and inclusion.”
This summer, Northam established an eight-member commission tasked with removing and replacing the statue. On December 16, the group selected Johns to supplant Lee. If Virginia’s General Assembly ratifies the decision, officials will commission an artist to create the new sculpture.
In recent years, Lee has emerged as a central figure in the debate over public works honoring slaveholders, the Confederacy and other controversial politicians. One of the Confederacy’s most prominent leaders, the commander led soldiers into battle at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
Lee held slaves and fought to keep them, claiming that slavery was essential to maintaining social order in the South. In an 1856 letter to his wife, the military officer expounded on these views, decrying abolitionists and referring to what he called “the systematic & progressive efforts of certain people of the North, to interfere with & change the domestic institutions of the South.” As Roy Blount, Jr. pointed out in the July 2003 issue of Smithsonian magazine, Lee’s views on the subject were “at best ambiguous”—in that same 1856 missive, he acknowledged that slavery was “a moral & political evil in any Country.”
The Capitol’s Lee statue is far from the first to spark debate: This summer, amid widespread protests against systemic racism, a prominent equestrian monument of Lee in Richmond became a nexus of controversy. Activists later strove to reclaim the Confederate symbol by plastering its base with brightly colored graffiti and projecting images of victims of police brutality onto its pedestal.
Though Northam ordered the 21-foot bronze sculpture’s removal in July, a number of setbacks have delayed the process. Despite these impediments, the governor continues to advocate for the removal of Confederate monuments across Virginia. His proposed budget for the coming fiscal year allocates $25 million dollars to transforming historic monuments across the state. Around $11 million will be used to reinvent the Virginia capital’s Confederate statue–lined Monument Avenue.
“Confederate images do not represent who we are in Virginia, [and] that’s why we voted unanimously to remove [the Capitol] statue,” says State Senator Louise Lucas in the statement. “I am thrilled that this day has finally arrived.”
Barbara Rose Johns' high school graduation portrait (Courtesy of Motown Museum)
Johns, the activist whose likeness will replace Lee’s in the nation’s seat of government, was a key figure in the fight against school segregation. In April 1951, at age 16, she led 450 classmates in a walkout protesting substandard conditions at Virginia’s all-black Robert Russa Moton High School.
Per the New York Times’ Lance Booth, Johns’ school lacked laboratories, a gym, a cafeteria and other basic features now taken for granted. After a teacher responded to her complaints by asking, “Why don’t you do something about it?” Johns and her younger sister Joan Johns Cobbs decided to organize a strike. Students boycotted school for two weeks, only returning after the local superintendent made vague threats against their families.
Undeterred, Johns decided to take legal action. Her case was eventually consolidated with four others to form Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 appeal that led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare segregated schools unconstitutional.
“Before the sit-ins in Greensboro, before the Montgomery bus boycott, there was the student strike here in 1951, led by Barbara Johns,” Cameron Patterson, who heads a museum on the high school’s former grounds, tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
Johns, who was forced to move in with an uncle in Montgomery after receiving threats for her role in the strike, went on to study library science at Drexel University. She “lived the rest of [her] life out of the spotlight,” according to the Times, and died of bone cancer in 1991 at age 56.
“When I think of Barbara Johns, I am reminded of how brave she was at such a young age,” says State Delegate Jeion Ward, a member of the statue commission, in the statement. “It’s time for us to start singing the songs of some of the Virginians who have done great things that have gone unnoticed. This is a proud moment for our commonwealth, and I am humbled to have been a part of it.”