RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Amid an ongoing debate about how Virginia should acknowledge its Confederate history, state lawmakers passed a bill Monday that scraps a 116-year-old state holiday honoring rebel generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
The House approved legislation that had already cleared the Senate, advancing the measure to Gov. Ralph Northam, who supports it. The bill designates Election Day as a state holiday instead.
“Voting is our most fundamental right as Americans — and it is past time we stopped celebrating men who worked actively to uphold the system of slavery,” Northam said in a statement. “We are one step closer to a more representative and inclusive Virginia.”
Lee-Jackson Day, established in 1904, is observed annually on the Friday preceding the third Monday in January. It honors the Confederate generals, both native Virginians.
For a time, the holiday was combined with the one celebrating civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the holidays were split in 2000.
Critics say the holiday celebrates the state’s slave-holding history and is offensive to African Americans. Many cities and counties have opted not to observe it.
Last year, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, refused to preside over the Senate chamber as lawmakers offered tributes to the two men on the holiday. He said he stepped off the dais to honor his family.
This year, with both legislative chambers controlled by Democrats, the bill passed without much debate.
In the Senate, Mark Peake was one of two Republicans who spoke against the measure the day it passed, saying he realized the Lee-Jackson holiday had “racial overtones” but he didn’t think it should be done away with.
“We can promote everyone, we can promote diversity, we can add things without taking away or tearing down other things,” Peake said.
Democrats are also advancing measures that would authorize local governments to remove or relocate Confederate monuments on public property.
The national debate over Confederate monuments intensified after a deadly 2017 white nationalist rally, but Virginia localities that wanted to remove monuments were hamstrung by the existing law, which protects war memorials.
Localities have used other means to re-evaluate how Virginia’s Confederate history is told, in some cases renaming schools and street signs that honored Civil War leaders.
In Richmond, one of the nation’s most prominent displays of Confederate statues stands along famed Monument Avenue. A sculpture of a young black man with dreadlocks was created in response, and was recently installed nearby with great fanfare.