June 18 (UPI) -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday ordered that four portraits of former speakers who served in the Confederacy be removed from the U.S. Capitol in honor of Juneteenth.
"Tomorrow is Juneteenth, a day that we observe as a day of freedom in our country," Pelosi told reporters in a news conference. "In observance of that, I have sent a letter, which you will see, to the clerk of the House, directing of the clerk to remove the portraits of four previous speakers of the House who served in the Confederacy."
Pelosi added that House members only recently found out about the paintings in the Capitol when they were taking inventory and a curator told them about them.
The portraits to be removed depict Robert Hunter of Virginia, Howell Cobb of Georgia, James Orr of South Carolina and Charles Crisp of Georgia.
"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 the letter Thursday to clerk Cheryl Johnson. "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. The portraits of these men are symbols that set back our nation's work to confront and combat bigotry."
Pelosi stressed the timing amid widespread protests and renewed conversations on racism sparked by the police-involved killing of George Floyd, 46, on Memorial Day. Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed within weeks of two others -- Breonna Taylor, who was shot by police in her home, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging.
"Very sadly, this day 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," Pelosi said.
The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery on Jan. 1, 1863, but Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger didn't read the federal orders proclaiming slaves free in the remote slave state of Texas until about 2 1/2 years later, on June 19, 1865. Friday marks the unofficial holiday, also called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Liberation Day, which spread across the South, with most states now recognizing it as a state holiday or ceremonial holiday.
Last week, Pelosi renewed a call to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol.
Southern states have contributed all 11 Confederate statues that have been displayed as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection in the Capitol for decades.
Lawmakers cannot unilaterally remove the statues from the collection but can move them to different locations. Pelosi moved the statue of Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee from a place near the House chamber to a room below known as the crypt.
Florida and Arkansas officials said they would replace their Confederate statues with civil rights activists.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus introduced legislation last week to remove all the Confederate statues from the Capitol.