On Friday, Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax protested a tribute to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the state senate. Fairfax — who is the second black official elected to Virginia statewide office, according to The Washington Post — turned leadership of the upper chamber over to Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart as the state Senate celebrated Lee's 212th birthday.
"I believe there are certain people in history we should honor that way in the Senate, and I don’t believe that he is one of them. I think it's very divisive to do what was done there, particularly in light of the history that we're now commemorating — 400 years since the first enslaved Africans came to the commonwealth of Virginia," Fairfax told The Washington Post.
Fairfax is a descendent of enslaved people. On the day Fairfax was inaugurated into public office his father gave him a copy of the manumission document that emancipated their ancestor, Simon Fairfax, from enslavement, The Washington Post reported in January 2018.
The Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been celebrated as Lee-Jackson Day in the Commonwealth of Virginia since 1889, according to NPR station WAMU at American University. The Washington Post reported that Fairfax also sat out the previous year's celebration of Lee.
The annual tribute to Lee was "hurtful," Fairfax said. "To do that in this year in particular was very hurtful to a lot of people. It does not move us forward, it does not bring us together. And so I wanted to do my part to make it clear that I don't condone it," Fairfax told the Post.
In 2018, Fairfax also sat out of the celebration of Lee. Stuart gave a speech in support of Lee's birthday during the 2018 celebration. Lee "has fallen victim to . . . a contemporary rewriting of history" and was a man who "did not go to war to preserve slavery," Stuart said of Lee. Fairfax sat off to the side.
Afterward, Fairfax said he was remembering his enslaved ancestors when he left the dais in the state Senate chamber. "I was just reminding myself of that journey," Fairfax told The Washington Post in 2018. "I was reminding myself what our ancestors had to go through to get to a point like we're having now. We can make progress if we keep our eyes on the future."
Fairfax told The Richmond Times-Dispatch that protesting the celebration of Lee was especially important this year:
Particularly in this year, which is obviously the 400-year commemoration of the first enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia, in Hampton and Point Comfort, I think it stings a lot of people in particular in a year like this. To constantly look backwards to a very divisive time and conscript people into honoring someone who — had he prevailed and gotten his way I would not be standing up there on that dais as lieutenant governor of Virginia — I think is something that we should not be doing.