Washington (AFP) - Four portraits of senior 19th century lawmakers who served in the Confederacy were removed from the US Capitol on Thursday in the latest manifestation of efforts to confront systemic racism and injustice in America.
The paintings of the men, all former speakers of the House of Representatives, were taken down at the order of current Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"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," the top Democrat wrote to the US House clerk Thursday requesting their removal.
The symbolic action preceded Friday's observance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.
Pelosi said her order coincided with Juneteenth and the current "moment of extraordinary national anguish, as we grieve for the hundreds of Black Americans killed by racial injustice and police brutality."
Protests swept the nation following the May 25 killing of African American George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Several Confederate statues have since been toppled or ordered removed in several states as Americans grapple with the legacy of racism.
In a rare Capitol Hill scene, staffers wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus stepped onto ladders and removed the first two gold-framed paintings from a wall at the entrance to the Speaker's Lobby, an ornate room adjacent to the House chamber.
It is believed to be the first time such a portrait has been removed from the Speaker's Lobby since that of Dennis Hastert was taken down in 2015 after he pleaded guilty to charges related to hiding hush money payments.
The four outgoing portraits depict Robert Hunter of Virginia, Howell Cobb of Georgia, Charles Crisp of Georgia, and South Carolina's James Orr, who Pelosi noted once swore on the House floor to "preserve and perpetuate" slavery in order to "enjoy our property in peace, quiet and security."
Pelosi has also sought removal of 11 Confederate statues from the Capitol, including a bronze figure of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, who was charged with treason against the United States.
A bipartisan committee is reviewing the statue request.