In the U.S. Capitol, each state is entitled to two statues, what is officially called the National Statuary Hall Collection. Virginia is represented by George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Now there’s a movement to replace Lee.
Last month, U.S. Reps. Jennifer Wexton, D-Fairfax County, and Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, formally asked Gov. Ralph Northam to request a new statue be substituted for Lee. In response, Northam has asked the General Assembly to pass a bill outlining the process for doing so.
Some seem aghast at the suggestion. The Washington Post quoted state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, calling the proposal “unbelievable yet predictable.” He went on to say: “And while they are at it, they should wheel out the marble George Washington statue. What’s next? Are he and Wexton going to ask Ralph to knock down the old [Virginia] Capitol building because it was designed by Thomas Jefferson? Geesh.”
Ideally, though, most people can see the difference between the man who is regarded as “the father of the country” and the man whose army led a rebellion against that same U.S. government.
In any case, some context: These historical figures may be enshrined in marble or bronze — both of Virginia’s statues are in bronze — but they are not permanent fixtures. In 2000, Congress passed a law allowing states to replace their statues and since then, at least 14 have set about doing so — often for reasons that have nothing to do with what some might dismiss as “political correctness.”
For instance, Kansas in 2003 replaced its statue of former Gov. George Washington Glick with one of Dwight Eisenhower. In 2009, California — a decidedly liberal state — added a statue of Ronald Reagan — a decidedly conservative president. He replaced a statue of Thomas Starr King, a minister and fiery orator who Abraham Lincoln credited with keeping California in the Union during the Civil War, as opposed to breaking away and declaring independence. Michigan in 2011 took home the statue of Zachariah Chandler, a 19th century politician who was a leading voice for the abolition of slavery, and substituted a statue of Gerald Ford. Arizona in 2015 replaced a statue of businessman and military hero John Campbell Greenway with one of Barry Goldwater. Did those replacements “erase history,” as some defenders of Confederate statues like to say? Or did they simply reflect that the world isn’t frozen in place? Glick, King, Chandler and Greenway were no doubt important in their day, but Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford and Goldwater are arguably more important, in our day anyway.
Meanwhile, North Carolina is currently in the process of replacing a statue of former Gov. Charles Aycock with one of evangelist Billy Graham. Of course, Aycock was an avowed racist who, before he was governor, was the organizer of an infamous race riot.
Likewise, Utah is in the process of replacing the statue of Philo Farnsworth, considered the inventor of the television, with a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon, who in 1896 became the first woman elected to any state Senate in the U.S. (She defeated her husband. That must have made for interesting dinner time conversation.) What had Farnsworth done to merit his demotion? Nothing. “He’s had his three decades of fame,” said the Republican legislator who sponsored the bill in favor of the Cannon statue. Besides, Utah was unwilling to displace its other statue — Brigham Young.
Of course, some states have made a point to replace statues of men who had connections either to the Confederacy or the Jim Crow era that followed it. These haven’t necessarily been so-called “liberal states,” either. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more conservative state than Alabama. In 2009, Alabama recalled its statue of Jabez Curry — a Confederate officer and post-war politician and diplomat —and instead sent one of Helen Keller. In 2018, the Republican governor of Florida approved bringing home the statue of Confederate officer Edmund Kirby Smith and adding one of civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, co-founder of Bethune Cookman University. (A side note: Florida had a hard time finding a taker for the Smith statue. Only after much controversy, did a museum agree to take it. The notion that Confederate statues should be sent to museums is fine in theory, but problematic in practice). But back to our roll call of conservative states that are diversifying their statuary: Last year, the Republican governor of Arkansas signed legislation to replace its two statues in the Capitol with ones of civil rights activist Daisy Bates and singer Johnny Cash.
The point here is that Virginia, if it replaces the Lee statue, as it surely will, won’t be taking some radical action. It will simply fit into the context of other states that have changed out their statues for lots of reasons. “There are countless commendable Virginians who would better represent our Commonwealth in the U.S. Capitol than a Confederate General,” Wexton and McEachin wrote in their letter to Northam. Does anyone care to dispute that?
Interestingly, Wexton and McEachin took the initiative to suggest some candidates for a substitute: Nat Turner, who led a famous slave rebellion. Booker T. Washington, who became an influential educator. Maggie Walker, who became the first African American woman to charter a bank. Barbara Johns, who led the student walkout at a Prince Edward County school to protest the inferior conditions of segregation. Oliver Hill, the attorney who took that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it became part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that struck down school segregation. (Perhaps Stanley, who was quoted in the Post story casting aspersions on the move to replace Lee, could support a statue of Washington, who grew up in Franklin County).
We’d offer one quibble to that list: Hill gets the attention but he didn’t practice alone. His partner was the more reserved Spottswood Robinson, who actually made the first arguments before the Supreme Court. Virginia journalist Margaret Edds documents their legal struggles — and their partnership — in her book, “We Face the Dawn.” Is there a rule about having two figures in the same statue?
For those who can’t fathom making any change, we suggest they take a listen to the Paul Simon song “The Boy In The Bubble.” Why? Because of this line: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” Some just do theirs in marble and bronze.