Charlottesville set to remove Lee statue that sparked rally
Charlottesville said the equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as well as a nearby one of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson will be removed Saturday.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A Confederate monument that helped spark a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville will be taken down this week, the city announced Friday.
Charlottesville said in a news release that the equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as well as a nearby one of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson will be removed Saturday. Designated public viewing areas for the removals will be established in both parks where the statues are located, the news release said.
The development comes more than five years after a removal push focused on the Lee statue bubbled up in 2016. As those plans evolved, the monument unveiled in 1924 — when when Jim Crow laws were eroding the rights of Black citizens — became a rallying point for white supremacists and other racist groups, culminating in the violent “Unite the Right” rally in 2017.
Because of litigation and changes to a state law dealing with war memorials, the city had been unable to act until now.
A coalition of racial justice activists who have long been fighting for the removal of the statues issued a statement Friday celebrating the news.
“As long as they remain standing in our downtown public spaces, they signal that our community tolerated white supremacy and the Lost Cause these generals fought for,” the coalition, Take ‘Em Down Cville, said in its statement.
Preparations around the parks will begin Friday and include the installation of protective fencing, according to the news release. The city said only the statuary will be removed for now; the stone bases will be left in place temporarily and removed later.
The Lee and Jackson statues are perched in places of relative prominence in Charlottesville, a small, picturesque city in the Blue Ridge mountains that’s home to the University of Virginia. Commissioned by a UVA graduate, the statues are just blocks apart from each other.
After a petition started by a Black high school student, Zyahna Bryant, advocacy from other local leaders and activists, and the work of a commission appointed to study the issue, the Charlottesville City Council voted in February 2017 to take the Lee statue down.
A lawsuit was quickly filed, putting the city’s plans on hold, and white supremacists seized on the issue.
First, white supremacists rallied by torch-light at the state in May 2017, then a small group of Klansmen gathered in July, far outnumbered by peaceful protesters.
The issue reached a crescendo in August, when white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally gathered in the city to defend the statue of Lee and seize on the issue for publicity, meeting in what was the largest such gathering of extremists in at least a decade. They brawled in the streets with anti-racist counterprotesters as police largely stood by and watched, scenes of intense violence that shocked the nation. A short time later, an avowed white supremacist and admirer of Adolf Hitler intentionally plowed his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and leaving others with life-altering injuries.
Still, because of the litigation over a state law that protected memorials to war veterans, Charlottesville’s hands were tied. Although the city government still wanted Lee gone, and voted to remove the nearby Jackson statue, the pair of monuments had to stay in place. A judge prevented the city from even shrouding them with tarps.
After Democrats took control of the General Assembly in the 2019 elections, the monument-protection law was rewritten in 2020. Since then, local governments across the state have removed statues that stood for a century or more.
Charlottesville, however, was waiting for the resolution of the lawsuit, which came in April, when the state’s highest court sided with the city.
Since that ruling, the city government has been working its way through the requirements of the new law, like holding a public hearing and offering the statue to a museum or historical society for possible relocation. The offer period for Charlottesville’s statues ended Thursday.
Ten responses have been received so far, Friday’s news release said, and the city remains open to “additional expressions of interest.” Under the new law, the city has the final say in the statues’ disposition.
Both will be stored in a secure location on city property until the City Council makes a final decision, the news release said.
In the aftermath of the rally, Charlottesville residents unleashed a torrent of pain, anger and frustration at city and state officials, laying bare deeper issues about race, economic inequality and what should be done to move forward. Activists have since been pushing the city to address its legacies of racism and slavery, its dearth of affordable housing and police accountability, among other issues.
Kristin Szakos, who was a City Council member at the time of the rally, said in an interview earlier this week that there was a determination to make sure the violence of 2017 was not in vain.
“It really brought up a lot of awareness of white supremacy that is not just from visitors from Idaho, but also from structures in our own culture and in our own institutions that we have to deal with. And that those are more important than just chasing Nazis out of our town,” she said.
Szakos, no longer in office, said she thinks the city has made some progress toward that work and that the statue removals will be another step in the right direction.
City officials have said they plan to redesign the park spaces where the statues are located “in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville.”