MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
After more than a year of legal battles, the colossal statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee came down today. It had loomed over Richmond's Monument Avenue for more than 130 years. Whittney Evans of member station VPM was there when it fell.
WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: The statue of Robert E. Lee atop a horse once stood 40 feet overhead before cranes came early Wednesday morning and plucked it from its graffitied pedestal. Onlookers watched the careful process unfold for nearly two hours before erupting into cheers.
EVANS: After a group of freshman college students got permission from their professor to skip class so they could be there. Izzy Henson is 18 years old and from Virginia Beach.
IZZY HENSON: I think it's so easy to think that history is frozen and stagnant and in the past. But it's - you know, we're writing in, and we're part of it. And that's so cool.
EVANS: Last year, as people took to the streets in cities across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Richmonders were galvanized, too. Here, in the former capital of the Confederacy, locals had experienced their own share of fatal police encounters. They called for reform but also took aim at Confederate symbols along Richmond's city streets. The Lee monument, which until today sat in the center of a large traffic circle, is where protesters gathered most days. Alexcia Cleveland was on the streets protesting last summer. She's a Richmond native and a public historian.
ALEXCIA CLEVELAND: It's really exciting to see that come down, but you also have mixed feelings because I do feel like, you know, it is kind of overshadowing, once again, the more material issues that really affect people's lives, like, you know, police brutality. So it's bittersweet.
EVANS: Marland Buckner is a Black resident who lives steps away from the monument. Some criticize efforts to remove the statue as only a symbolic gesture. But he says symbols are important in public life.
MARLAND BUCKNER: There's a reason that monument went up, and there's a reason that monument went down.
EVANS: Buckner and many of his neighbors supported the monument's removal, but for more reasons than one. Sometimes it felt unsafe. There were conflicts with the police. At one point, someone lit a Molotov cocktail in front of Buckner's house. Ultimately, though, he says it was long past due for the statue to come down, another brick out of the foundational wall of white supremacy.
BUCKNER: This story isn't a Monument Avenue story, a Richmond story or Virginia story. It is an American story.
EVANS: It's unclear what happens next to the pedestal where Robert E. Lee once stood. The statue itself is being stored until state lawmakers decide where it should go. Meanwhile, local community leaders, artists and historians will begin the process of reimagining Monument Avenue.
For NPR news, I'm Whittney Evans in Richmond.
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