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Calls to remove the statues, denounced as symbols of white supremacy, were reignited in the wake of national protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd.
Across the country, statues are tumbling down.
In Birmingham, Alabama, protesters took down a statue of Confederate Navy Captain Charles Linn and attempted to topple a nearby obelisk commemorating Confederate soldiers and sailors. The city’s mayor then ordered its removal, in defiance of the state’s Memorial Preservation Act.
In Jacksonville, Florida, the mayor removed one Confederate statue and announced plans to get rid of 11 other monuments and historical markers. In Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam last week pledged to take down the five Confederate statues prominently displayed on Monument Avenue.
“That statue has been there for a long time,” Northam said at a press conference about the state’s plan to remove the six-story-tall monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. “It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now. So we’re taking it down.”
But protesters in Richmond, who have held demonstrations calling for police reform in front of the statues for days, took matters into their own hands. They pulled down the 8-foot-tall likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Wednesday night, days after demonstrators toppled a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in a city park.
Meanwhile, Northam’s pledge to put Lee’s statue in storage is temporarily on hold, as a judge issued a 10-day injunction this week to block the immediate removal.
The removal of Confederate statues and monuments has been a topic of frequent debates across the South since at least 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. But the issue has gained urgency during protests of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, as demonstrators target them as symbols of slavery, white supremacy and segregation.
Defenders of the statues have argued that removing them is an attempt to alter history, often suggesting that instead governments should add plaques that provide more context. Virginia State Sen. Amanda Chase wrote in a fundraising email last week that the removal of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue would set a dangerous precedent that would not stop “until white people are erased from history,” and state Senate Republican leaders said in a statement that the statue’s removal was a poor decision.
“Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail,” they wrote.
But others feel the statues are simply celebrating racism—something that can’t be justified with a plaque. In Tennessee, where state lawmakers this week rejected a proposal to remove a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol, state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a black Democrat, said on Twitter that coming face to face with the statue every day is akin to working beside a monument to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
“What if everyday you walked into the house or Senate chambers and you saw a bust of Hitler before you entered,” he tweeted. “That sickness in the pit of your stomach that you’re feeling right now...is what we (African Americans) feel every time we enter the capitol of Tennessee.”
Since the Floyd protests began, city leaders—in Alexandria, Va.; Mobile, Ala.; Louisville, Ky. and Asheville, N.C., among other places—have removed or pledged to take down statues, while residents in multiple cities are circulating petitions to remove others.
There are a total of 771 Confederate statues and monuments in the United States, according to a map compiled by AlJazeera. The vast majority were erected in the late 19th century, decades after the end of the Civil War, as a reminder to black people that white people were the ones in power as Jim Crow laws were instituted across the South.
“It’s not just that the statues represent white supremacy, but the purpose of building the statues was the perpetuation of white supremacy,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told TIME. “This is why they put them up in the first place; to affirm the centrality of white supremacy to Southern culture.”
Non-Confederate statues are also coming under renewed scrutiny. Three statues of Christopher Columbus were taken down this week—one, in Boston, was removed by city leaders after protesters chopped its head off; another, in Richmond, was thrown into a lake by protesters and later fished out by the city, and a third, in St. Paul, Minn., was toppled—and then spit on—by protesters.
Columbus, a 15th-century explorer who claimed to discover the Americas, enslaved and brutalized indigenous people, forced native people to convert to Christianity and introduced a host of diseases that decimated Native American populations.
Newer statues have also been taken down. In Charlotte, N.C., officials with the Panthers NFL team removed a statue of former owner Jerry Richardson as a precaution, fearing it could become a target for protesters. Richardson, who brought the NFL to the Carolinas, sold the team to current owner David Tepper two years ago after allegations of racial and sexual misconduct surfaced late in the 2017 season, according to ESPN. It’s unclear whether the removal is permanent.
In Richmond, city crews removed a monument to fallen police officers after it was vandalized four times by protesters. And in Philadelphia, city officials removed a statue of former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who encouraged police brutality against black residents, blocked public housing programs, opposed desegregation and told city residents to “vote white” in allowing him to serve a third consecutive term. (He lost.)
“The statue represented bigotry, hatred and oppression for too many people, for too long,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney wrote on Twitter after signing an executive order to remove the statue. “It is finally gone.”
But the statue remains, for now, somewhere in the city. Kenney’s office told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Rizzo’s likeness would be placed in secure storage with the city’s Department of Public Property “until a plan is developed to donate, relocate, or otherwise dispose of it.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.