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Virginia has the most Confederate memorials in the country, but that might change

Some Richmond leaders argue that all monuments to Confederate leaders in the city should come down and that streets and highways named after them should be renamed.
People gather at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., on Thursday, June 4, 2020, amid protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody.Ryan M. Kelly / AFP - Getty Images

As nationwide protests continue following the death of George Floyd in police custody, the debate over removing Confederate statues has reignited — and the city that was once the capital of the Confederacy is taking the lead.

The Richmond, Virginia, City Council on Friday decided unanimously to remove four Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. The decision followed an announcement by the state's Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, that the six-story-tall statue of Robert E. Lee that looms over the street would come down "as soon as possible."

Unlike other Confederate statues on the street, the monument to Lee, the Confederacy's top general, is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Others along the street include one to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, and Stonewall Jackson, one of Lee's top generals.

Some local leaders have argued that all monuments to Confederate leaders should come down and that streets and highways named after them should be renamed.

"My father always told me if you're under the hood fixing the engine, fix it all. I know the mayor is open to removing all of them. I believe it sends the right message to the next generation," City Councilman Michael Jones told NBC News.

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Virginia is home to 110 Confederate monuments, 13 of which are in Richmond, according to 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC. The state has 244 Confederate symbols, which includes roads and bridges named after Confederate leaders, more than any other state, the SPLC says. There are 41 symbols for Lee alone.

In April, Northam signed a bill giving localities the power to "remove, relocate, contextualize, or cover" Confederate statues in public spaces beginning July 1. Local governments had previously been prohibited from making changes to war memorials.

The developments in Richmond recall the swirl of events that took place in another Virginia city in 2017, when the City Council in Charlottesville debated whether to remove a Lee statue. White supremacists gathered in the city for a "Unite the Right" rally aimed at preserving the statue. A bloody clash led to the death of a protester after a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd.

On Sunday, roughly 1,000 people gathered in downtown Charlottesville to call for the removal of Confederate monuments, carrying signs with sentiments including "A heritage of hate is nothing to celebrate."

"Removing the monuments shows the evolution of how we're waking up and noticing what black people go through day to day. It's more than removing a monument. It's more seeing people for who they are," said attendee Neil Wood, 21.

The efforts have prompted pushback. Republican leaders in the state Senate released a statement arguing: "Attempts to eradicate instead of contextualizing history invariably fail."

In the past, defenders of the monuments have called for adding historical context rather than taking them down. But advocates of removing them say simply adding a plaque isn't enough.

"If we had a cross burning in somebody's yard, no one would say: Provide a context for the cross burning. Or the swastika. They would take it down, because they understand the hatefulness of those symbols," said Shawn Utsey, chairman of the African American studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Lee monument in Richmond was unveiled in 1890, and the four other statues along Monument Avenue were erected in the early 1900s. An SPLC review found a spike in construction of Confederate monuments in the U.S. during the early 1900s, when Jim Crow laws were being enacted. Construction spiked again during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Richmond protesters have also taken action. On Saturday night, they dragged down a statue of Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham in Monroe Park, just a mile from where Lee's monument still stands.