Brooklyn church removes plaque honoring Robert E. Lee

For more than 100 years, a plaque stood outside St. John's Episcopal Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, marking a tree planted by Robert E. Lee in the 1840s when he was stationed at the U.S. Army's Fort Hamilton before joining the Confederacy and becoming a general in the Confederate Army.

But on Tuesday, the plaque was removed.

"It symbolizes, I think, in its existence and particularly on church property, of an outward offense to people who pass by this place," said Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, of which St. John's is a part.

Provenzano said he decided to remove the plaque in light of recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and heightened debate over Confederate symbols and statues across the country.

"A lot of people are being offended by a sign of a person who fought against the United States, a person who fought to preserve slavery," said Khader El Yateem, a reverend with a neighboring church and a candidate for City Council who was among those asking for it to be taken down.

The plaque's removal drew a small crowd of community members, some in favor of taking it down and others who thought it should stay.

"It was forgotten, it was remembered, it is gone, and that is for the best," said one man who applauded after the sign was removed.

Walter Setts, who lives nearby, said he thought it should remain in place. "It's part of our history," Setts said. "It's the Civil War."

While the General Lee plaque came down, two blocks away, streets named after General Lee and another Confederate general, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, remain inside Fort Hamilton.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday called on the U.S. Army to take down the street names. Army officials previously declined to do so last week.

"Given the events of this week, including the violence and terrorism perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville and the resulting emboldening of the voices of Nazis and white supremacists, I now strongly urge the U.S. Army to reconsider its decision and I call on them to rename these streets," Cuomo wrote to military leaders.

One of the reasons that these Confederate symbols are still on display in New York City in 2017 is that most people don't know they exist in the first place, said Harold Holzer, the director of Hunter College's Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. 

"They've escaped attention," Holzer said. "They've fallen under the radar."

Holzer said he agrees that the streets on the Army base should be changed.

"Those are some things that they have to take stock of," he said. "They were not American military heroes; they were American traitors."

But Holzer argued that historical markers like the plaque have a place in modern society.

"The plaque doesn't say 'The great Robert E. Lee did a heroic deed and should be celebrated for all time because he was a good gardener,'" Holzer said. "It simply says 'He was here,' which I think is something New Yorkers should know about."

The plaque will now go into the Diocese's storage in Garden City, Long Island. The tree, which is actually the second replacement of the one Lee planted, will remain.

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