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Robert E. Lee statue stays on its Richmond pedestal, for now

The statue was unveiled before a massive crowd in May 1890

This June 27, 2017, file photo, shows a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
This June 27, 2017, file photo, shows a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the middle of a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

RICHMOND, Va. – A Richmond judge heard arguments Thursday but said he would not immediately issue a ruling in a lawsuit over Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's plans to remove an enormous statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Attorney Gen. Mark Herring's office asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit and dissolve an existing injunction barring the removal of the statue from historic Monument Avenue.

The lawsuit was filed by William C. Gregory, a descendant of signatories to a 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and ground they sit on to the state. His complaint argues that the state agreed to "faithfully guard" and "affectionately protect" them.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant said the matter was of great importance and said he would issue a written ruling later. He then proceeded to hear evidence from the plaintiff’s attorney.

Northam's administration has been readying plans to remove the enormous statue - should the court clear the way- from a soaring pedestal. He announced plans to take it down in early June, citing the pain felt across the country about the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The statue was unveiled before a massive crowd in May 1890, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were over and Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.

Now cloaked in graffiti, it and other nearby monuments have become a rallying point during social justice protests and occasional clashes with police.

The 21-foot-high equestrian statue, which the state has said weighs about 12 tons, sits atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley Cavedo, who issued an initial injunction in June and later extended it, dismissed Gregory's initial complaint but allowed him time to amend it, saying he wanted Gregory's attorney to have "another shot" at addressing issues of legal standing.

Cavedo recused himself earlier this month, citing the location of his home in the vicinity of the Lee monument. He wrote that he was unaware at the outset of the case that he lived in the Monument Avenue Historic District, a 14-block area that contains the Lee statue and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark.

The listing of the monument on state and federal historic registers recognized the statue as a “masterpiece” of French academic sculpture and “an icon for the cult of the ‘Lost Cause,’” according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.