A Richmond Circuit Court will hear arguments Thursday whether the governor may remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from Monument Avenue after a judge’s temporary order halted the potential action.
William C. Gregory filed an 18-page lawsuit seeking to prevent the removal of the statue. Circuit Court Judge Bradley B. Cavedo issued the 10-day injunction the same day, June 8. The state’s attorney general filed a notice two days later that his office will represent Gov. Ralph Northam.
“The Governor has both the authority and the moral obligation to remove this badge of white supremacy from its place of exaltation, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring intends to defend the Governor’s decision and ensure the removal of this divisive relic,” says the filing that notifies the court of his office’s representation of the governor. The notice also complains that Gregory’s lawyer, Joseph E. Blackburn Jr., failed to contact the Attorney General’s Office before the hearing that led to the injunction. The injunction ends on the day of the new hearing.
Other lawsuits, federal and state, also have been filed.
Protesters have not waited on legal niceties, in Richmond or elsewhere. They toppled statues of Confederate Gen. Williams C. Wickham in Monroe Park, Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park, and the part of the Jefferson Davis monument that represented the former Confederate president. None were as large as the Lee sculpture, but the demonstrators still faced dangers. In Portsmouth, for instance, a man was hit in the head when protesters pulled down a similar-sized part of a monument to Confederate soldiers. He suffered a serious injury.
Authorities repeatedly have warned demonstrators of the peril of toppling bronze. The statue of Lee on Monument Avenue weighs 12 tons and its stone base is 40 feet high.
On Monument Avenue, the state only controls the Lee statue. The others are owned by the city, presumably placed on land it already owned.
Allen and his sisters, Bettie F. Allen Gregory and Martha Allen Wilson, gave the circle of land with a radius of 100 feet to the state, according to the March 17, 1890, deed in Henrico County, transcribed on the Library of Virginia website. Allen Avenue, the cross street to Monument at the circle, is named for the family. The officers of the Lee Monument Association also signed the deed, donating the statue itself and the pedestal, both of which it had funded.
Allison Tait, a professor at the University of Richmond law school who specializes in trusts, estates and family law, says it’s far from clear how this might work out.
“It’s very rare for it to go back,” she says of a family’s charitable donation. Courts usually find a similar purpose for a donation of money or land when the original one goes away, she says. Once polio was cured, for instance, donations for its treatment went to other medical causes.
Among the matters for a court to decide are whether the statue and the pedestal upon which it sits were part of the donation from the family. The deed says the Lee Monument Association donated them. The bronze statue arrived in May 1890 after the deed was signed, but the stone pedestal was presumably under construction at least by March. Did it attach to the land and become property of the Allen family?
The document, found on pages 367-370 in Henrico County’s Deed Book 129B, transcribed on the library’s Virginia Memory website, includes the language that the state, referred to by the female pronoun: “executes this instrument in token of her acceptance of the gift and her guarantee that she will hold said Statue and pedestal and Circle of ground perpetually sacred to the Monumental purpose to which they have been devoted and that she will faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
That kicks off more legal wrangling about family members’ intentions, Tait says.
“They basically made a charitable donation with a condition on it,” she says. But was the monumental purpose for only a statue of Lee? Tait says it’s possible a small sign saying the site formerly held a statue of Lee might be enough to satisfy the deed and keep the land in state hands. Another statue might satisfy the deed as well.
“For the heirs to get it back, they have to prove that there was no other purpose for the donation,” she says. If a court ordered the land’s return to the family, what would members do with it, statue or no statue, base or no base? Tate wondered who would want a building lot or lots in the middle of Monument Avenue.
Still, sometimes land in such disagreements returns to the original owners, or at least some people who are related to them. In 1751, James Cocke donated land to Henrico County for a courthouse at what became 22nd and East Main streets in downtown Richmond, according to “Virginia’s Historic Courthouses,” a 1995 book by John O. and Margaret T. Peters.
The last courthouse there was built in 1896, but the county’s courts and offices were there through the 1960s. Henrico County, however, moved its courts, jail and county offices to the West End in the mid-1970s, eventually leaving the courthouse, now in the city, empty.
Heirs of Cocke sued the county in 1988, saying if the land and the attached courthouse were no longer used for that purpose, they wanted them back. The lawsuit, James Cocke Memorial Society v. County of Henrico, was resolved in 1992 when the old courthouse was auctioned on its own steps, according the Peters’ book.
More than 240 years after his donation, the 100 or so heirs of James Cocke split the money.