Pelosi directed the House clerk to oversee the immediate removal of portraits depicting former speakers from three Southern states: Robert Hunter of Virginia, James Orr of South Carolina and Howell Cobb and Charles Crisp, both of Georgia.
Calling the halls of Congress "the very heart of our democracy, Pelosi said, "There is no room in the hallowed halls of Congress or in any place of honor to commemorate the Confederacy.
Hours later, the portraits were gone, taken away by workers and placed in storage. The ornately framed portraits had hung outside the House chamber for decades, barely noticed by lawmakers, staffers and journalists who crowded into the carpeted Speaker's Lobby adjacent to the chamber.
Three of the portraits hung near a staircase used by lawmakers to enter the House chamber; Crisp's portrait was in the Speaker's Lobby, where portraits of House leaders dating to the earliest days of the republic are displayed in honor.
Pelosi noted that Friday is Juneteenth, honoring the day in 1865 when many African Americans learned of the end of slavery after the Civil War. She called Juneteenth "a beautiful and proud celebration of freedom for African Americans" and noted that this year's celebration 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."
Orr, who served as speaker from 1857-59, swore on the House floor to "preserve and perpetuate" slavery in order to "enjoy our property in peace, quiet and security," Pelosi said in her letter to the House clerk. Hunter, who served at nearly every level of the Confederacy, including as Confederate secretary of state, was speaker from 1839-41.
Cobb served as speaker from 1849-51, while Crisp served after the Civil War, from 1891-95.
Earlier this month, Pelosi urged the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol and the renaming of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate Army officers.
The abrupt removal of the Confederate portraits brought back memories of 2015, when then-Speaker Paul Ryan ordered the removal of a portrait of former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., after he pleaded guilty in federal court to breaking banking laws in a hush money scheme. The payments were meant to silence a male student that Hastert had sexually abused while he was teaching high school decades before.
In the Senate Thursday, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of three black senators, unsuccessfully pressed for immediate passage of a bill to remove statues of Confederate notables such as Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, president of the Confederate States of America, from display in the Capitol.
"The continued presence of these statues in the halls is an affront to African Americans and the ideals of our nation," Booker said.
The chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he is open to holding a hearing on the bill, but he opposed immediate action because it would upend a process set in law governing the display of state-sponsored statues in the Capitol.
Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership team, said he is heartened by states such as Arkansas that are replacing Confederate statues on their own.