The City of Charlottesville, Virginia, has removed two statues glorifying Confederate generals, including the statue of Robert E. Lee that sparked a deadly white supremacist rally nearly four years ago.
The removals were well overdue, Zyahna Bryant told the Washington Post. She was in the ninth grade when she started a petition in 2016 to remove the Confederate monument, prompting the Charlottesville City Council to vote in February 2017 to remove the Lee statue and a nearby statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
“This should have happened a long time ago,” she said as she watched workers remove the statues on Saturday.
The removals have been held up for years by a lawsuit filed in March 2017 to block the removal under a state law passed in 1997 to bar cities from removing Confederate memorials. Many Southern states have enacted similar laws to prevent local communities from removing Confederate monuments and memorials.
That summer, members of the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi groups, and other white nationalists traveled from across the country to Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Lee statue. On August 12, 2017, a man attending the “Unite the Right” rally drove his car into a crowd of people, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other counterprotestors.
A circuit court judge then ordered an injunction against removing the statues, and the city appealed. This April, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the 1997 law applies only to monuments and memorials erected after the law was enacted, clearing the way for Charlottesville to remove the nearly 100-year-old Lee and Jackson monuments.
On Saturday morning, a crane lifted the Lee and Jackson statues onto trucks and drove them away as crowds of residents cheered. Workers also removed two statues that celebrate violence and oppression against Native Americans.
A Legacy of Racial Injustice
All four statues were commissioned by Paul Goodloe McIntire in the early 1920s, when the city’s Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak. One of Charlottesville’s largest benefactors, McIntire’s many donations to the city included the whites-only McIntire Park and a separate park “for use as a playground for the colored citizens of Charlottesville,” C-VILLE Weekly reported.
Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue, commissioned in 1924, was prominently placed in a downtown park (also named for Lee until recently), that has long served as a fairgrounds for annual festivals. The Jackson statue was placed three blocks away, just yards from a courthouse where enslaved people had been bought and sold, The Washington Post reported.
Then-Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy said in 2016 that some residents believe the Confederate statues were installed as a “psychological tool to show dominance of the majority over the minority” during that time.
Around the turn of the 20th century, white Southerners installed monuments to the Confederacy across the South as part of a concerted effort to redeem their defeat and build cultural support for the re-establishment of white supremacy.
These monuments romanticized and glorified the effort to preserve slavery by framing Southern secession as an effort to defend local autonomy and states’ rights.
During the era of racial terrorism, disenfranchisement, and violent repression targeting African Americans that followed the Civil War, Confederate monuments, memorials, and other symbols played a vital role in restoring the racial hierarchy that would continue to dominate life in the American South and influence thinking on racial equality nationwide.
Confronting Our History
Today, hundreds of statues, memorials, and monuments across the American South celebrate the architects and defenders of slavery as heroic and honorable.
Charlottesville is one of dozens of communities across the country where residents are organizing to confront their history of enslavement and its legacy by removing Confederate monuments and memorializing victims of racial violence.
“It’s about time,” the Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms, a pastor at Charlottesville’s New Beginnings Christian Community, told The Washington Post. The removal of the statues “means we are one step closer to accepting the historical fact of slavery and what it means for not just the people who were enslaved, but for those who were the enslavers.”
Niya Bates, a graduate student studying the history of enslavement, told the Post, “I’m excited to see our community finally dealing with symbols of white supremacy.” She is working to implement a new state law that requires the University of Virginia and four other public colleges in the state to identify and memorialize the individuals who were enslaved on their grounds and to provide scholarships and other reparations to their descendants.
“Symbols have power,” Ms. Bates said. “This is a good way to start a conversation about meaningful systemic change.”