On Tuesday morning, Charlottesville’s City Council voted unanimously to melt down the Robert E. Lee statue that used to sit prominently downtown in Emancipation Park (previously named Lee Park) and recast it into a new work of public art. The statue was finally removed earlier this year, in July.
The proposal, submitted by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, won out over five competing bids. These finalists were winnowed down from an even larger pool of statements of interest that were initially submitted. Some of those who wrote to express interest included a flurry of private citizens who wished to safe-keep the statue on their ranches; descendants of Lee and other Confederate figures; and someone who proposed that the bronze horses atop which Lee and Jackson sit be “repurposed without riders or pedestals… put out to pasture in a bucolic setting.” The city’s decision to move forward with the Jefferson Center’s proposal plants another landmark on a discussion and process that has been ongoing for four years, when it first resolved to remove the Lee statue, alongside several other Confederate monuments.
Charlottesville’s Lee statue is not just any old Confederate monument — of which almost 2,100 remain in the United States, according to an estimate done by the Southern Poverty Law Center in February. In 2015, high schooler Zyahna Bryant started a petition to remove the Lee statue, which immediately gained traction among her peers and Charlottesville’s residents at large. Infamously, the city council approval of a resolution to do just that sparked the “Unite the Right” rally on August 11, 2017, a white nationalist rally that a mob of far-right groups flocked to brandishing tiki torches, deliberately recreating the terroristic aura of KKK rallies and mob lynchings. That rally, which resulted in the gratuitous death of Heather Heyer and the injury of 19 others when a neo-Nazi rammed his Dodge into the crowd, was only the latest and most visible of the many rallies that took place that summer. The Lee statue has therefore accrued a slate of historical meanings over time, embodying not only the racial hatred of the Confederacy but also present-day racism and white nationalism, the Trump era, and Black Lives Matter protests and anti-racist activism.
The process to remove the statue and figure out what to do with it has taken so long in large part because the statue removal was impeded by litigation. In 2019, a Circuit Court ruling deemed that the removals of the Lee statue alongside the nearby Stonewall Jackson monument were unlawful — a decision that was reversed by Virginia’s Supreme Court in September of 2021.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center brings together a coalition of organizations based in Charlottesville, including the University of Virginia’s Memory Project, the artist-run gallery Visible Records, and the state humanities council, and was the only individual or group local to the city to submit a proposal. Their proposal, named “Swords Into Plowshares,” references a Biblical verse from Isaiah and alludes to the symbolic and reparative work they hope to accomplish by transforming an icon of white supremacy into a democratic, creative process. It also garnered 30 letters of support from individuals and groups, such as the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia and descendants of Monticello’s enslaved community.
It has not yet been decided what the new artwork will be or who will make it. The proposal’s approval means that the project will enter a six-month-long series of community dialogues to “define the values of the new work of art,” as well as the “criteria of future placement.” Beginning in January 2022, these conversations will be held at various venues across Charlottesville, including churches, living facilities, libraries, and barbershops, and will prioritize the voices of descendants of enslaved people. The artist or artists commissioned to work with the statue will be announced by 2024 and will be invited to an artist residency at Visible Records.
The Jefferson Center’s project is an innovative and unprecedented solution, at least in the United States, to a problem that beleaguers many municipalities that are now struggling with what to do with monuments that have come down but have nowhere else to go. Most often, they are thrown into storage while cities consider — or postpone considering — their fate. Other times, they’re stored in secret locations to avoid attracting attention. And sometimes, they are recontextualized with new plaques or moved to secondary locations where they might be unencumbered by previous associations. Often, none of these options are fully satisfactory.
In Charlottesville’s case, the Jefferson Center emphasized that “recontextualization is not enough,” and that wherever it went, it would represent an “icon of violent white supremacy.” But it stresses that “transformation is different from destruction” — to critics who are upset that the monument is being melted down, it is important to remember that an artist will be breathing new life into it.
“In the 21st century, our city will again be distinguished for its leadership in public art—this time by pieces that express commitment to democratic values,” the Jefferson Center remarks. Hamza Walker, the director of LAXART — which threw its own hat into the ring and petitioned Charlottesville for both the Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues — agrees, despite losing the bid. “For the hometown heroes to lay claim to the statue is fully right,” Walker says.
Speaking on the context around removing monuments, Walker says, “we are in uncharted waters. It’s the first time something like this has happened in the United States.” He continues, “on one hand, we’re all in this together, and it’s a national issue — but at the same time, it’s also a very local issue. So the responses might be just as varied.” He notes that there are a number of approaches that different cities might choose to take, but that Charlottesville’s initiative is pathbreaking.
Although Walker wasn’t able to acquire the Lee statue for LAXART, the city has approached him about the Jackson statue, which LAXART remains interested in. In a similar vein to the Jefferson Center’s proposal, an artist would be commissioned to work with the Jackson statue — either by showcasing it intact in an installation, or melting the metal and repurposing it. It would be part of MONUMENTS, a show that Walker expects to take place in Fall 2023.