A crowd erupted in cheers and song as crews hoisted a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee off the giant pedestal where it has towered over the US state of Virginia’s capital city for more than a century.
The statue, one of America’s largest monuments to the Confederacy, was lifted away as one of the construction workers who helped strap harnesses to Lee and his horse lifted his arms in the air and counted down, “Three, two, one!” to jubilant shouts from a crowd of hundreds.
“This was a long time coming, part of the healing process so Virginia can move forward and be a welcoming state with inclusiveness and diversity,” Governor Ralph Northam said once the statue had been lowered to the ground.
The Democrat said it represented “more than 400 years of history that we should not be proud of”, and he congratulated Virginians for supporting its removal.
Black Lives Matter signs could be seen in the crowd, and some people chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” and sang “Hey hey hey, goodbye”.
The statue – which workers used a power saw to cut in two along the general’s waist so it can be hauled under overpasses to a secure location until a decision is made about its future – was removed after years of resistance and a long court battle.
Governor Northam ordered that the statue be taken down last summer, citing the pain felt across the country over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck. But until a recent court ruling cleared the way, Governor Northam’s plans had been tied up in litigation.
The statue, a 21-foot (six-metre) bronze equestrian sculpture that sits on top of a pedestal nearly twice that height, has towered above a residential boulevard named Monument Avenue since 1890 in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.
Crews began work on Wednesday morning, with two public viewing areas set up. A crowd of around 200 people looked on as work to remove the statue got under way.
The state brought in a deconstruction crew surrounded by a heavy police presence to strap the statue to a crane. State, capitol and city police officers closed streets for blocks around the site, using heavy equipment and crowd-control barriers to keep people away.
The Federal Aviation Administration granted the state’s request to ban drone flights during the event, which was livestreamed through the governor’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“This is a historic moment for the city of Richmond. The city, the community at large is saying that we’re not going to stand for these symbols of hate in our city anymore. And it was important for me to be here to see this historic moment,” Rachel Smucker, 28, said.
Ms Smucker, who is white, said she moved to Richmond three years ago and found Monument Avenue “jarring”.
“I’ve always found it to be offensive, as a symbol of protecting slavery and the racism that people of colour still face today,” she said.
The piece had stood alongside four other large Confederate statues on the avenue which the city removed last summer.
“We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up,” Governor Northam said in June 2020 when he announced the removal plan.
“Think about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children.”
After Mr Floyd’s death, the area around the statute became a hub for protests and occasional clashes between police and demonstrators.
The decisions by the governor and Richmond mayor Levar Stoney to remove the Confederate tributes marked a major victory for civil rights activists, whose previous calls over the decades to remove the statues had been resisted by both city and state officials.
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