Virginia Lawmakers Vote to Remove Statue of Segregationist at State Capitol

A panel also moved forward with a measure to replace Robert E. Lee's U.S. Capitol statue with one of civil rights activist Barbara Johns

Virginia State Capitol
Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A panel of Virginia legislators advanced a bill Friday to remove a statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr., a staunch segregationist, from the state Capitol grounds.

The decision came amid a years-long effort in history-rich Virginia to rethink who is honored in the state's public spaces. Byrd, a Democrat, served as governor and U.S. senator. He ran the state's most powerful political machine for decades until his death in 1966 and was considered the architect of the state’s racist “massive resistance” policy to public school integration.

“It is my deep belief that monuments to segregation, massive resistance, and the subjugation of one race below another, like this statue, serve only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism that has and continues to plague our Commonwealth,” the bill's sponsor, Del. Jay Jones, said when introducing the measure.

The bill moved out of the House committee on a party-line vote of 13-5, with all Republicans voting against it. It still must clear both chambers of the General Assembly, but with Democrats controlling the statehouse and Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam backing the measure, it is almost certain to pass.

Northam highlighted the bill in an address to lawmakers earlier this month, saying the state should no longer celebrate a man who fought integration.

Rita Davis, counselor to the governor, spoke on behalf of the administration Friday.

“Had Mr. Byrd had his way, I would never have the opportunity to be before you because I am Black," she said. “Certain members of the General Assembly would never be able to serve because they’re not white.”

She said the question before the committee was "not whether we should remove Mr. Byrd’s statue from Capitol Square, but rather, why on earth would we keep it in Capitol Square?”

In the 1950s, Byrd’s political machine implemented a series of official state policies that opposed court-ordered public school integration and even closed some public schools rather than desegregate them.

Northern Virginia Bureau Reporter Drew Wilder reports the statue of a 16-year-old girl who led a walkout in 1951 to protest students’ substandard segregated school facilities will replace Robert E. Lee in the Capitol's Statuary Hall.

“If we can organize the Southern states for massive resistance to this (court) order, I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that integration is not going to be accepted in the South,” Byrd once told fellow Democrats, The Associated Press has previously reported.

The larger-than-life statue erected in 1976 and located a stone's throw from the Capitol depicts Byrd with a copy of the federal budget. A nearby plaque says the statue was dedicated in appreciation of Byrd’s “devotion throughout a long public career to governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia.”

Attempts by the AP to reach members of the Byrd family have not been successful. No one spoke against the bill Friday.

For several years, Virginia has been in the midst of a reevaluation of its historical landscape, from its hundreds of Confederate monuments, to buildings and roads named after people who espoused views on race now considered abhorrent.

The death of George Floyd over the summer and the social justice movement that followed accelerated the discussions. Lawmakers evicted a Confederate statue and busts from inside the Capitol in July, and the city of Richmond removed some of the state's most prominent Confederate monuments from its public spaces. Other localities in more conservative, rural areas held referendums this fall and voted to keep their statues.

In an unusual twist, a similar measure to remove the Byrd statue was filed last year by a freshman Republican lawmaker.

Republican Del. Wendell Walker introduced the bill, apparently with the aim of needling Democrats who were pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments, saying “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

But when met with agreement from across the aisle on removing the statue, Walker asked that the bill be killed, and Democrats acquiesced.

Jones, who is Black, said he sent Walker, who is white, an invitation to co-patron this year's bill. Walker had not responded as of Friday, Jones said.

Jones' bill directs the state Department of General Services to remove the statue from Capitol Square and store it until the General Assembly determines what should be done with it.

The same panel on Friday also advanced a measure that would make official an earlier recommendation that civil rights hero Barbara Johns represent Virginia in the Statuary Hall collection at the U.S. Capitol instead of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. No one voted against the measure.

Lawmakers started the process last year with a measure that convened a committee to study whether Lee - whose statue had stood with George Washington’s statue since 1909 as Virginia’s two representatives in the Capitol - should be replaced.

That committee decided Lee should go (his statue was removed in December and taken to a Richmond history museum ), and voted to replace him with Johns.

Johns, who died in 1991, protested conditions at her all-Black high school in the town of Farmville in 1951, and her court case became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling struck down racial segregation in public schools, and then continued to be met with resistance from white politicians like Byrd.

Johns' sister, Joan Johns Cobbs, told the committee her family was grateful for the choice to honor Johns.

“I am so appreciative that Barbara is being considered because what she did in 1951 was very courageous,” she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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