Story at a glance
- There are hundreds of statues and monuments of Robert E. Lee across the United States, and while dozens have been removed by protesters and cities, some prominent statues still remain.
- Lee’s statues are especially abundant in Virginia, his home state, where supporters have contested planned removals.
- A statue in Richmond and another in Charlottesville have been the site of major protests.
The former commander of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee, has a special place in his home state of Virginia — well, a few actually. But two of his biggest monuments are now the subject of very public legal battles.
The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Va., became the subject of protests in 2016, when the city council voted for its removal. After a lawsuit filed by the Monument Fund Inc, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and descendants of the statue's donor and sculptor, a judge ruled in 2019 that removing the statue would violate a state historic preservation statute and issued an injunction.
Then, in 2020, the state modified the statue to allow for the removal or alteration of Confederate monuments. But Vice Mayor Heather Hill said in an interview with NBC News that the future of the statue remains in limbo, as the injunction still stands.
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"Even though state law has changed, that injunction must first be removed by a judge. And we are proceeding [with] the appeals process and removing the injunction, but before we can do anything else, that piece has to legally be dealt with," Hill told NBC News.
In the meantime, protesters turned their attention to another Lee monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond, the state’s capital. Statues of Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury, other Confederate figures, have since been removed from that same street, but Lee’s remains, even after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced it would be taken down.
"The issue in the Richmond Lee case is what we call private law, which is that there's a property claim being made here that promises were made by the state to private property owners over 100 years ago," Richard Schragger, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, told NBC News. "When the state took the property and accepted the statue, it made promises to local landowners that it would keep the statue intact in perpetuity. ... It's like a claim that your neighbor promised you that, say you live in a homeowners association, that they would never use their property to build a gas station on it."
While these are just two statues, what happens with them is likely to set an example for other cities around the United States grappling with similar questions.
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