WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she is ordering the removal from the Capitol of portraits honoring four previous House speakers who served in the Confederacy.
In a letter to the House clerk, Pelosi directed the immediate removal of portraits depicting the former speakers: Robert Hunter of Virginia, James Orr of South Carolina and Howell Cobb and Charles Crisp, both of Georgia. The portraits were to be removed later Thursday.
Calling the halls of Congress “the very heart of our democracy,″ Pelosi said, “There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor for memorializing men who embody the violent bigotry and grotesque racism of the Confederacy.″
Pelosi noted that Friday is Juneteenth, honoring the day in 1865 when many African Americans learned of the end of slavery after the Civil War. She called Juneteenth “a beautiful and proud celebration of freedom for African Americans” and noted that this year’s celebration comes “during a moment of extraordinary national anguish, as we grieve for the hundreds of Black Americans killed by racial injustice and police brutality, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others.”
Orr, who served as speaker from 1857-59, swore on the House floor to “preserve and perpetuate” slavery in order to “enjoy our property in peace, quiet and security,” Pelosi said in her letter. Hunter, who served at nearly every level of the Confederacy, including as Confederate secretary of state, served as speaker from 1839-41.
Cobb served as speaker from 1849-51, while Crisp served after the Civil War, from 1891-95.
Earlier this month, Pelosi urged the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol and the renaming of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate Army officers.
Casey Burgat, director of a legislative affairs program at George Washington University, said Pelosi’s action was a clear response to the Black Lives Matters movement and protests regarding racial injustice. Removal of the portraits “is one of the few immediate and unilateral actions she can take to illustrate her stance that former Confederates do not deserve to be memorialized within the halls of Congress,” Burgat said.
In the Senate, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of three black senators, unsuccessfully pressed for immediate passage of a bill to remove statues of Confederate notables such as Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, president of the Confederate States of America, from display in the Capitol.
“The continued presence of these statues in the halls is an affront to African Americans and the ideals of our nation,” Booker said.
The chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he is open to holding a hearing on the bill, but he opposed immediate action because it would upend a process set in law governing the display of state-sponsored statues in the Capitol.
Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership team, said he is heartened by states such as Arkansas that are replacing Confederate statues on their own.
Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this story.