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'There Is No Context': General Assembly votes to remove Byrd statue

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Byrd statue

The Virginia General Assembly has voted to remove the statue of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square, the area around the Virginia State Capitol. House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until the General Assembly chooses its final location. The bill passed the House in late January on a 63-34 vote, while the Senate approved the measure Tuesday on a 36-3 vote.

Byrd served as state governor from 1926 to 1930 and U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. His massive resistance campaign pushed for Southern states to reject the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, cutting off state funding and closing schools that tried to integrate.

Jones called the statue a reminder of the institutional racism in Virginia during the bill’s first committee hearings. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, echoed Jones’ sentiments during the bill’s final reading on the Senate floor.

“When I was an intern working for the first African American governor and walked past that statue every day, I knew I was his worst nightmare,” McClellan said. “I feel it every time I walk past it.”

McClellan spoke of the pain African Americans have endured in Virginia due to Byrd’s disenfranchisement of Black voters and the dehumanization that Byrd cast on them.

“There is no context that could be placed on a statue on Capitol Square, the ultimate public park with public art, that could erase the pain that Harry Byrd and his legacy invokes for African American Virginians,” McClellan said.

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Warrenton, gave a speech on the Senate floor portraying Byrd as a humble, industrious man who worked in the apple business, saved a local newspaper and improved Virginia’s highway infrastructure. Vogel described Byrd’s “massive resistance” campaign against school integration in the 1950s as a stain on an otherwise remarkable career.

“That is a great stain on his career and a great embarrassment,” Vogel said. “But he was a man of a certain time in a certain era.”

Vogel asked the senators to “look at the whole man and consider that we are each a sum of all our parts, the good and the bad.”

Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Springfield, pushed back on Vogel’s request, saying probably 100,000 students if not more were kept out of school for years due to Byrd’s push for segregation.

“I just don’t see how we can overlook the fact that all of these children … were kept out of school for four years,” Saslaw said. “I think that we should not be honoring people to that degree in Capitol Square.”

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill last year to remove Byrd’s statue. Walker later pushed for his bill to be removed.

Walker voted against HB 2208 during its final reading in the House on Jan. 27.

The push to remove statues of Confederate leaders accelerated after protests began following the death of George Floyd last May. Floyd died in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimated the statue’s removal will cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

Byrd’s statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966. The bipartisan vote to remove it comes on the eve of the 65th anniversary of Byrd’s massive resistance campaign, according to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Vogel were the only senators to vote against the bill.

Rita Davis, council to Gov. Ralph Northam, spoke of Northam’s support for the bill during committee hearings. Northam is expected to sign the bill.

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