"Glorifying Our Worst Enemies"

The Lee Statue in the Capitol

In the waning years of the Civil War, the Old Hall at the United States Capitol Building was converted into a statuary chamber. The vision informing the space was that each state would contribute two statues of prominent figures to the hall. In 1909, the Commonwealth of Virginia elected to send statues of George Washington and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Black journalists were acutely interested in the decision to celebrate Lee at the US Capitol and published a raft of commentary in the years that followed, most of it critical.

The Indianapolis Star published a lengthy editorial in 1909 which opposed Lee’s presence in the Capitol. “Veterans of the Civil War, who fought for the flag to which Lee was disloyal,” the authors contended, “will be shocked at [the statue being draped in a Union flag] and disposed to regard it as a direct and intentional insult to all men who loved and were faithful to the Union.”[1] The article suggested that the decision to celebrate Lee actually exposed a “secret shame felt by present-day Virginians over his course.”[2] According to the article, the representation of the Union flag would only confound future efforts
to comprehend what the Civil War had been about:

as time goes on and coming generations, unknowing or forgetful of the history and issues of the war, look on this statue they will naturally assume, seeing the flag, that Lee was a soldier in the Union. A hundred years from now, few who look at the figures in the hall of fame will recall that he was other than loyal.[3]

The article affirmed that many other men were “greater than Lee” and more fit choices to represent Virginia—Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice Marshall, and James Madison.[4]

In 1910, the Afro-American (Baltimore, MD) published a piece reporting on speeches made at a ceremonial function for the Grand Army of the Republic of Massachusetts. Statements denouncing the decision to place the statue of Lee in the Capitol generated “great enthusiasm” among the assembly.[5] A resolution was put forward that demanded “Virginia withdraw the statue of Lee and if the state refused to do so the congress would be petitioned to order its removal.” In response to these actions, the “entire body of delegates arose as one man, cheering wildly.”[6]

The Monitor (Omaha, NE) and the Afro-American published the same article in 1926 opposing the placement of the likeness of Lee—or that of any other Confederate figure—in Statuary Hall. The article quoted the president of the Washington D.C. chapter of the NAACP, Neval H. Thomas, who stated: “The many illustrious Negroes who have rendered distinguished service in every noble endeavor in our country’s history have no place there, and we feel that in glorifying our worse [sic] enemies the nation discourages patriotism and self-forgetful service.”[7] The New York Amsterdam News also reported Thomas’s remarks on Confederates in Statuary Hall, noting that Lee, “who received his military training in the Union military academy at West Point and rewarded the splendid gift with treason, is honored by the presence of his marble likeness there among those of the patriots and other benefactors of the United States.”[8]

One piece from this period stands apart from the generally critical eye cast on the Lee statue by Black journalists. In 1910, the Kansas City Sun republished an article (originally found in Collier’s Weekly) criticizing the controversy about Virginia choosing Lee. They wrote:

It is surprising that any discussion can be carried on about whether a statue of Robert E. Lee should be placed in Statuary Hall in the capitol at Washington, this being one country. Lee’s exceptionally fine character is now appreciated as clearly at the North as at the South.

The article focused on the argument that the decision to celebrate Lee was Virginia’s and Virginia’s alone: “the National government and the people of the country at large have nothing to do with the decision.”[9] Echoing the Lost Cause myth of the Civil War as driven by a philosophical argument over “States’ Rights,” the article claimed that outsiders claiming their “opinions are of any weight in a matter which belongs exclusively to [Virginia]” was a “supererogation.”[10]

In 2020, the Commonwealth of Virginia voluntarily removed the Lee bronze in Statuary Hall and replaced it with a statue of anti-segregation activist Barbara Rose Johns. Valentine’s Lee statue was placed in the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, where it serves as an anchor for an exhibit on the shifting politics of Confederate commemoration.

Justin Seward

Photograph courtesy of Donovan Schaefer


Afro-American. “Oppose Statue of Rebels in Capitol.” Afro-American, April 10, 1926, 2.

Afro-American. “Withdraw Lee’s Statue.” Afro-American, April 23, 1910, 6.

Indianapolis Star. “Lee and the Flag.” Indianapolis Star, August 13, 1909, 6.

Kansas City Sun. “Lee and Statuary Hall.” Kansas City Sun, January 14, 1910, 6.

Monitor. “Oppose Statue of Rebels in Capitol.” Monitor, April 16, 1926, 1.

New York Amsterdam News. “Neval Thomas Opposes Statue to Confederate Leader in Statuary Hall.” New York Amsterdam News, April 7, 1926, 9.

  1. Indianapolis Star, “Lee and the Flag.” ↩︎

  2. Indianapolis Star, “Lee and the Flag.” ↩︎

  3. Indianapolis Star, “Lee and the Flag.” ↩︎

  4. Indianapolis Star, “Lee and the Flag.” ↩︎

  5. (Afro-American, “Withdraw Lee’s Statue.”) ↩︎

  6. (Afro-American, “Withdraw Lee’s Statue.”) ↩︎

  7. (Monitor, “Oppose Statue of Rebels in Capitol”; Afro-American, “Oppose Statue of Rebels in Capitol.”) ↩︎

  8. New York Amsterdam News, “Neval Thomas Opposes Statue to Confederate Leader in Statuary Hall.” ↩︎

  9. Kansas City Sun, “Lee and Statuary Hall.” ↩︎

  10. Kansas City Sun, “Lee and Statuary Hall.” ↩︎