Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, isn’t sure which Virginian should represent the state in the collection of statues at the U.S. Capitol, but he thinks it shouldn’t be Robert E. Lee.
To that end, Levine has filled a bill to remove Virginia’s Lee statue from the National Statuary Hall Collection — where each state honors two of its luminaries — and set up a state commission to create a new statue to take the Confederate general’s place.
“Is he the second-best Virginian in all of Virginia history that we need to honor? Is he? Really?” said Levine, an attorney who has served in the House since 2016.
Several lawmakers have filed bills to give localities the power to remove Confederate monuments and relocate them to museums, nullifying a state law aimed at preventing local officials from removing or altering war memorials. Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, has filed a bill to set up a state Monument Removal Fund that could accept private donations and gifts to help cover the costs of removing statues.
As Virginia localities continue to debate how to handle the hundreds of Confederate statues throughout the state in the wake of the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer, Levine’s bill, House Bill 1099, deals with a statue under direct control of the legislature.
“It’s one thing if we were allowed a thousand statues in Washington,” Levine said. “We are allowed two.”
In a chamber where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, Levine’s proposal faces long odds. But he said that if Republicans believe Lee is still worth honoring, “let them say so publicly.”
In a speech last week marking Lee-Jackson Day, Del. Ben. Cline, R-Rockbridge, recapped the military and educational careers of Lee and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, saying the events in Charlottesville rightfully brought new attention to the two men and the “complicated times in which they lived.”
“But while times may change, Mr. Speaker,” Cline said, “greatness does not.”
Asked about Levine’s bill, Cline said he wishes there were space for more than just two statues.
“But these two are the ones that we have,” Cline said. “And I see no reason to remove them at all.”
George Washington was the Virginia General Assembly’s first pick when Congress invited each state to send statues of two of its most distinguished citizens to Washington for the national collection. Lee got the second spot, but not without controversy.
“This decision was arrived not without lengthy discussion and extended comment,” read a Richmond Times-Dispatch article published in 1909, the year the statues arrived at the Capitol. “While the bill was under consideration some members of the Legislature expressed the fear that its passage might be the occasion of a great storm of disapproval in the North, and thereby rekindle sectional feeling.”
In addition to Virginia’s Lee statue, eight other Confederate leaders are included in the national collection, including a bronze of Confederate President Jefferson Davis given by Mississippi in 1931.
Levine’s bill would establish a six-member commission made up mainly of lawmakers, historians, the director of the state Department of Historic Resources and a citizen member. Echoing the original criteria for Statuary Hall, the commission would choose “a prominent Virginia citizen of historic renown or renowned for distinguished civil or military service.”
Levine said he doesn’t have a specific replacement in mind, but he’d favor an African-American such as Oliver Hill, the Richmond civil rights attorney who fought to end segregated schools.
Last summer, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., suggested Pocahontas as a possible replacement for the Lee statue at the U.S. Capitol, saying Virginia “could probably do better.”
It’s not clear if new Gov. Ralph Northam — who said during the campaign last year that he would advocate for the removal of Confederate statues at the state level — will support the bill.
“As a matter of policy the governor is not going to comment on legislation before it hits his desk,” said Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel.
The bill has not yet been referred to a committee.