Two gay members of the Virginia General Assembly said they will introduce bills that would give the city of Alexandria authority to move a Confederate statue from the prominent Old Town site at which it has been displayed since it was first placed there in 1889.
Adam Ebbin, a member of the Virginia State Senate whose district includes Alexandria, and Mark Levine, a member of the state’s House of Delegates whose district also includes Alexandria, announced plans to introduce the legislation in their respective chambers within the past week. Both are Democrats.
The General Assembly is in recess and isn’t scheduled to convene until January for its 2018 session. Ebbin and Levine said they would formally introduce their respective bills at that time.
The two said their bills call for repealing an 1890 state law that specifically prohibits Alexandria from removing the Appomattox statue, which depicts an unarmed and unnamed Confederate soldier observing the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Appomattox Court House in 1865.
Ebbin and Levine said their respective bills would also repeal part of a 1950 Virginia state law that prohibits any local municipal government from removing any Confederate memorials or monuments.
Levine said he plans to introduce a separate bill calling for the state to use its authority to remove from the U.S. Capitol’s National Statutory Hall a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Under a policy set by Congress, each state is allowed to place two statues of its choosing in the Statuary Hall section of the Capitol Building.
The second statue placed by Virginia is of George Washington. Levine said he favors leaving the Washington statue in Statuary Hall and replacing the Lee statue with a statue of a prominent African-American Virginian, possibly of former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder. He said his bill would leave it up to state officials to decide who the replacement statute would be of as long as it isn’t someone associated with the Confederacy.
“Let me know if you have ideas,” Levine said in a Facebook posting announcing his plans for introducing the legislation to move the Appomattox statute and replace the Lee statue at the U.S. Capitol.
“I will reach out to other Delegates and Senators as well for their ideas on a replacement,” he said.
Most political observers in Virginia say the Republican-controlled legislature is unlikely to pass the type of legislation proposed by Ebbin and Levine. They note that last year the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to petition the state to give it authority to move the Appomattox statue from its current location to the grounds of a city museum across the street from its current site.
No legislators at that time, including Ebbin and Levine, expressed interest in introducing legislation to facilitate the request on grounds that it could not pass. In what some view as an expression of defiance, the State Senate and House of Delegates instead passed a bill that strengthened the state’s control over Confederate monuments and memorials. The bill died after Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.
In an email to constituents on Aug. 17, Ebbin said the “horrific events” in Charlottesville, Va., two weeks ago in which police said white supremacists and neo-Nazis initiated violent clashes with counter protesters over the planned removal of a Confederate statute of Robert E. Lee in a Charlottesville park prompted him to decide to introduce his planned legislation.
“In giving thought to the location of the statue in the past, I have sought out opinions of African American leaders and tried to understand what a Confederate monument in the heart of Old Town means to them,” he said.
“Hard as that may be to truly appreciate, it has become readily apparent what statues like Appomattox mean to white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” Ebbin wrote in his email. “That sickening reality has underscored the need to push for enabling legislation.”
He added: “Those who would argue against giving localities authority regarding the siting of monuments sometimes claim that to do so is an effort to ‘erase history.’ I would respond that localities relocating, or even removing, statues does not erase the history of the Confederacy, but rather just ceases to publicly honor it.”
Although the Alexandria City Council voted in September 2016 to express its support for moving the Appomattox statue, a seven-member advisory group created by the City Council one year earlier to study whether the statue should be moved and streets named after Confederate figures should be changed recommended that the statue be left where it is.
Noting that it represents Confederate veterans rather than leaders, the group said it was erected by a veterans’ organization with money raised locally and on land provided by the city.
“Appomattox has been a local landmark since its erection, and is one of the few surviving authentic memorials connected to the war,” the advisory group said, adding that rather than removing it information should be added to clarify the “context” of the statue as part of Alexandria’s history.
The statue is currently owned and maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which would decide where to move it if Alexandria is given the authority by the state to remove it from its current site at South Washington and Prince Streets in Old Town Alexandria.
“I think prior to two weeks ago Adam and I agreed this was politically impossible,” Levine said in discussing the prospects of his and Ebbin’s bills passing in the legislature. “It’s still improbable but I think we’ve gone from the impossible to the unlikely,” he said. “And with Charlottesville it’s possible that the mood has changed, the atmosphere has changed and it’s worth a try.”