WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered portraits of four speakers who served the Confederacy to be removed from the Capitol on Thursday, the latest in a wave of efforts across the country to purge public spaces of historic symbols associated with racism and oppression.
On the eve of Juneteenth, the day that honors the end of slavery in the United States, Ms. Pelosi, of California, banished the paintings from the speaker’s lobby, the grand corridor outside the House chamber where the portraits of her predecessors are displayed.
As Cheryl L. Johnson, the House clerk, and six reporters looked on, workers for the architect of the Capitol mounted ladders and carefully removed the paintings, wheeling them off and leaving empty hooks and blank patches of wall where they had hung in gilded frames.
“As I have said before, the halls of Congress are the very heart of our democracy,” Ms. Pelosi wrote in a letter to Ms. Johnson requesting the removal of the portraits. “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 portraits are of Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, Howell Cobb of Georgia, James L. Orr of South Carolina and Charles F. Crisp of Georgia. Mr. Crisp served in the Confederate Army as a young man and entered politics in the 1870s; the others were in Congress before the Civil War, and then held high civilian office in the Confederacy.
The paintings were loaded onto two dollies Thursday afternoon, each placed between pieces of foam board, and transported to the House collection storage.
The removal of the portraits was part of a broader rethinking by lawmakers about how American history is depicted and remembered inside the walls of the Capitol, which was built by slaves. The discussion comes as the nation grapples with a wide-ranging conversation about racism and justice after the death of George Floyd in police custody.
As speaker, Ms. Pelosi has unilateral power over portraits in the House, but her efforts to remove statues of 11 Confederate officials and soldiers — including Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America — from the Capitol have been met with resistance. Current federal law gives states the power to remove a statue, as they are selected and donated by states for display in the Capitol, and top Republicans have indicated they believe states should maintain that responsibility.
“Individuals who committed treason against the United States of America and led our nation into its most painful and bloody war to preserve the institution of slavery are not patriots and should not be afforded such a rare honor in this sacred space,” Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, said on Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor. “The continued presence of these statues in the halls of Congress is an affront not just to black Americans, but to the very ideals we as a nation proclaim, that we are a place of liberty and justice for all.”
But when Mr. Booker tried to win unanimous approval of a bill to remove statues of Confederate officials from Capitol Hill, the move was blocked by Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who leads the bipartisan committee that oversees such requests.
“It would have the effect of abandoning agreements that we have entered into with the states and the states have entered with us,” Mr. Blunt said of the proposal, noting that some states had already moved to replace their statues, four of which Ms. Pelosi had singled out. “This is a more complicated arrangement than the activity on the floor today would suggest.”
Mr. Blunt, however, said he planned to further examine the legislation. He is also one of several Republicans who signaled support for a provision in a must-pass military policy bill that would require the Pentagon to strip bases and equipment of Confederate names, monuments or symbols in three years.
President Trump has condemned the provision and said he would not even consider such changes, leaving open the possibility of an election-year clash between him and Congress over whether to honor Confederate figures.