- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Virginia’s special history commission on Wednesday picked Barbara Rose Johns, a lesser-known civil rights pioneer who led an early school desegregation effort, as the figure it wants to send to Washington to replace the state’s current statue of Robert E. Lee in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Brushing aside suggestions of founding-era heroes such as James Madison or Patrick Henry, and 20th Century statesman George C. Marshall, the commission said it wanted someone schoolchildren would identify with — and Johns, who was a teen in 1951 led a strike at her Virginia high school to demand facilities like white students had, fit the bill.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued on the students’ behalf, in a case that would get wrapped up as part of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregated schools.

“The impact of what she did as a young person is so compelling and it changed so many lives,” said Margaret Vanderhye, a former Democratic state lawmaker and one of the commissioners. “Sometimes the history finds the people.”

The commission’s vote was 6-1, with the lone dissent coming from Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe, who cast her vote for Pocahontas, an iconic figure from the beginning of the first English colony who was one of the other five finalists the commission had in front of it.

“In the time period we’re in when we’re going back and trying to correct history, removing statues … the Native American people who have been left out of everything should have a place in history,” she said.

Other than Pocahontas, the other finalists were all black, and three were women, capturing the Black Lives Matter-inspired moment of 2020.

L. Louise Lucas, chair of the commission and also president pro tepore of the state Senate, said she respected Chief Richardson’s view, but for her, a statue of a young black woman was the right antidote to the Capitol.

“There’s nothing that would be more significant than having a teenager in Statuary Hall so that when students go there they will see somebody who looks like them — a teenager,” she said. “I hate to say it like this, you got a bunch of old white guys in Statuary Hall. I think it’s time for a young person.”

The recommendation of the panel — officially known as the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol — now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam, then on to the General Assembly, which will have final say.

“It’s not a done deal yet,” said Delegate Jeion Ward, a Democrat and panel member.

But the Lee statue is on the way out no matter what.

A state official told the commission money has been earmarked to remove it, and it should be gone from the U.S. Capitol’s collection by the end of the year. It would have been gone already, but it has to be removed after hours when Congress isn’t in session, and lame-duck business has shrunk that window of opportunity.

The Lee statue was controversial from the start, when Virginia in the late 1800s decided he, along with George Washington, would be the state’s offerings at the Capitol. Each state is allowed two slots in Statuary Hall.

While some saw the decision to send Lee as a sign of reconciliation, others — including some veterans of the Union Army — saw it as an affront.

The statue was carted into the Capitol almost in secret, and Congress refused for decades to hold an official acceptance ceremony for it.

In recent decades, as statues to Lee have been taken down and his name stripped from schools and roadways, attempts to oust the statue from the Capitol have been made and thwarted.

This year is different.

Racial justice protests following the death of a Black man at the hands of a White police officer in Minneapolis sparked a new reckoning that’s surmounted previous bulwarks.

Congress voted this month to delete Confederate names from military bases nationwide. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week signed legislation banning sale of Confederate flags on state property as part of a new ban on “hate symbols.”

And several Democrats in Congress proposed legislation to strip Lee’s name from his own former house at Arlington plantation, which after the Civil War became the site of the most storied military cemetery in the country.

“Robert E. Lee himself opposed erecting Confederate monuments, and the site was chosen to punish his insurrection against the lawful government of the United States,” said Rep. Don Beyer, the Virginia Democrat whose district includes Arlington and who’s leading the renaming effort.

He is proposing to go back to Arlington House, which he said was the original name before Congress dubbed it the Custis-Lee Mansion, recognizing the home’s link to the Washington-Custis family that Lee married into.

While Mr. Beyer said he was digging deeper into history to replace the Lee name, in Richmond, the debate over Lee statue replacements was dominated by far more modern options.

In addition to Pocahontas and Johns, the other finalists were Oliver W. Hill, a leading Civil Rights-era lawyer; John Mercer Langston, a 19th century statesman and Virginia’s first black congressman; and Maggie Lena Walker, the first Black woman to create and run a bank in the U.S.

Rejected were titans of the founding era, such as James Madison, George Mason and Patrick Henry.

Also failing to make even the first cut were Arthur Ashe, a barrier-breaking Black tennis player who has already been at the center of a statue controversy when Richmond added him to the Confederate generals along Monument Avenue, and Douglas Wilder, the country’s first elected Black governor. Mr. Wilder is still alive, which made him ineligible to be in Statuary Hall.

Prominent Black Virginia natives failing to make the initial cut were Booker T. Washington and Ella Fitzgerald.

One name that seemed intriguing to many, but also left off the finalist list, was George C. Marshall, perhaps one of the country’s most important statesmen never to become president. He was chief of staff for the Army during World War II, then a diplomat without parallel, helping create NATO and the European post-war recovery plan that became known as the Marshall Plan. He would win the Nobel Peace Prize for that effort.

“Marshall’s character and impact have earned a statue in that American pantheon on Capitol Hill,” said one member of the public, Beau Hammond, testifying at Wednesday’s meeting.

All in all, the process has worked better than the last time Virginia tried to retire a part of its history deemed incongruent with modern sensibilities and morals.

In the 1990s the state legislature voted to demote the state song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” — written by an African-American composer — to state song emeritus because of its references to “Massa” and “Missis” and “this old darkey.”

The legislature appointed a commission to find a brand new state song. The panel met several times, received submissions and even heard auditions. But it turned into a fiasco, with charges of corruption and favoritism involving country star and sausage magnate Jimmy Dean and his wife, who penned one of the finalists.

Embarrassed by the whole thing, the commission quietly went away, and Virginia to this date still has no official state song.

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