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Statue of Former Governor and Segregationist Harry Byrd Removed

People removing statues
Workers removing a statue of segregationist and former Governor Harry Byrd Sr. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A statue of former governor and segregationist Harry Byrd Sr. was removed from Capitol Square today.

Media were invited to witness the statue’s removal early Wednesday morning along with Gov. Ralph Northam and Del. Jay Jones.  

Byrd was a leader in the fight against racial integration in the 1950s and ‘60s,  known as massive resistance. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled under Brown v. Board of Education that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. Segregationists like Byrd and then Governor Thomas B. Stanley sought to close public schools that began integration. The General Assembly voted earlier this year to remove Byrd’s likeness following a summer of racial justice protests and the toppling of confederate monuments throughout the city and state.  

Del. Jay Jones, who introduced the legislation, told reporters Wednesday it is an emotional moment, especially considering his grandfather fought massive resistance and segregation. 

“To see that architect of that, Harry Byrd, come down today out of a public place, it’s special. For me for my family,” he said. “My father was denied entry to an elementary school a mile away from where he grew up because of Harry Byrd’s policies.” 

But Jones said it’s a new day.  

“We have a new dawn here,” he said. “And I think this is, again, one small step on our journey to reconcile here in Virginia. To tell our true history. To make sure that we’re moving together.” 

The push to remove the statue of Byrd  actually began with Republicans, not Democrats

Del. Wendell Walker (R-Lynchburg) first introduced the proposal last year as a sort of “gotcha” bill, betting Democrats would not vote to remove a statue to one of their own.  

Some Republicans defended the former Democratic governor and asked lawmakers to consider the whole man, not just Byrd’s opposition to integration. Byrd, who was also a U.S. Senator and state senator, led the creation of Virginia’s modern highway system and was rumored to be a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932. 

Northam said it remains to be seen what, if anything, will replace the statue on vacant space where Byrd once stood.  

“Capitol Square belongs to the people of Virginia and those that come and visit,” he said. “So we’ll have discussion as to what we do next. Whatever we do, we want it to embrace diversity and inclusivity in the Commonwealth of Virginia.” 

 Contractors put the Byrd Statue, and its large granite base,  on a flatbed truck and moved it to a surplus storage facility, where it will remain until the General Assembly directs the Department of General Services to move it elsewhere.  

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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