House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced today, June 18, that she has ordered the removal of portraits of four House Speakers who served in the Confederacy from the halls of United States Capitol in Washington, DC. The portraits will be removed tomorrow on the occasion of Juneteenth, which celebrates the date when news of emancipation reached enslaved people in the southernmost state, Texas.
The portraits that will be removed are those of Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter of Virginia, who served as House Speaker from 1839 to 1841; Howell Cobb of Georgia (1849 to 1851); James Lawrence Orr of South Carolina (1857 to 1859); and Charles Frederick Crisp of Georgia (1891 to 1895).
“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 wrote in a letter to Cheryl Johnson, clerk of the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives Speaker Portrait Collection is displayed inside the Speaker’s Lobby and Members’ Retiring Room in the US Capitol. A plaque at the lobby says the collection was conceived as a “tribute to their worth to the nation.” The collection began with artist Giuseppe Fagnani’s 1852 portrait of Speaker Henry Clay.
“We cannot honor men such as James Orr, who swore on the House Floor to ‘preserve and perpetuate’ slavery in order to ‘enjoy our property in peace, quiet and security,’ or Robert Hunter, who served at nearly every level of the Confederacy, including in the Confederate Provincial Congress, as Confederate Secretary of State, in the Confederate Senate and in the Confederate Army,” Pelosi’s letter says. “The portraits of these men are symbols that set back our nation’s work to confront and combat bigotry.”
Pelosi’s gesture comes amid historic protests against structural racism and police brutality against Black people in the United States, led by the anti-racist coalitions and advocacy groups across the country.
Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York signed an executive order recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees. The governor said that he will advance legislation to enshrine Juneteeth as an official state holiday starting next year.