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The Confederate statue that sparked Unite the Right came down — but its future remains contested

A statue of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee is seen in Market Street Park during the first day of jury selection for James Fields's murder trial at the Charlottesville Circuit Court, November 26, 2018 in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images)
A statue of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee is seen in Market Street Park during the first day of jury selection for James Fields's murder trial at the Charlottesville Circuit Court, November 26, 2018 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images)

Just off Market Street Charlottesville, Va., the walking paths in a little park lead to the spot where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stood for almost a century.

Today, it’s just a patch of dead grass. But five years ago, the statue of Lee riding a horse and holding his hat by his side stood tall. And it triggered a conflagration that turned deadly: In August 2017, white supremacists descended on Charlottesville with a plan to take down the statue. And even though the statue is gone from the park, where it eventually ends up remains contested.

The 26-foot bronze statue was dedicated in 1924 at a Confederate heritage event, where Lee was declared a “stainless leader of a stainless cause.”

By this point, the so-called lost cause propaganda — a narrative that casts the Confederacy’s racist mission in a positive light — had taken hold across the South.

During the Civil War, 52% of the local population around Charlottesville was enslaved, says Jalane Schmidt, a professor at the University of Virginia who took part in the effort to remove the statue.

After the Civil War, Virginia passed a new constitution giving Black men the right to vote. Then 30 years later, white lawmakers reversed course by instituting poll taxes and literacy rules to disenfranchise most Black voters.

“Some of the former Confederates and certainly Confederate descendants and sympathizers called the Reconstruction-era constitution the ‘N-word Constitution,’” Schmidt says. “And we’re getting rid of the N-word Constitution and negro rule, and now we’re finally reasserting Virginia values.”

The first wave of Confederate statues to promote this idea went up in cemeteries but soon bled into public spaces. The first Confederate statue erected in downtown Charlottesville was installed in 1909 in front of the courthouse, Schmidt says.

“It’s one of those standard-issue, mass-produced, Confederate soldier statues,” she says, “on the courthouse lawn, announcing to anyone approaching the courthouse what kind of justice you’re going to be getting.”

The effort to remove Confederate statues picked up steam in the last six years, resulting from a long debate in and around Charlottesville that’s still ongoing.

“Once I got educated about it, I actually felt offended because it reminded me of a time where people like me[who] looked like me was really downtrodden, oppressed, treated bad,” resident Shon Parker says. “It just kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s like a constant reminder, and it’s like they idolize in the Jim Crow era.”

Resident Jim Hizer, who is white, believes the statues should stay despite their painful legacy.

“There could be a lot of ways to deal with that. One would be just a placard saying this was such and such. This is what he did,” Hizer says. “Not just to say let’s tear it down and forget about it, because we don’t want that. That’s the worst thing that can happen is forget about this.”

A patch of dead grass marks where the Robert E. Lee statue once stood. The statue’s fate is currently tied up in the courts. (Hawes Spencer)

In 2016, a Black ninth-grader in Charlottesville named Zyahna Bryant, started a petition to take down Confederate statues. She collected hundreds of signatures and got the attention of the city council. In February 2017, the council voted to remove the Lee statue.

That prompted the first of two white nationalist events in town that year. The first was in May 2017, when protesters were met by counter-protesters and there was no violence.

Then came the weekend of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.

On the first night, demonstrators with tiki torches chanted neo-Nazi slogans at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Early the next morning, they marched to the park where the Lee statue stood. Others came to oppose them, and violence erupted. After the demonstration turned deadly, the city council voted again to remove the Lee statue. After a legal challenge that was eventually rejected, the statue came down in July 2021.

Ginny Bixby, a reporter for the longstanding city newspaper Daily Progress, was there when the statues came down.

“We got the word the day before that the city would be removing them,” Bixby says. “There were a lot of concerns about security, which was somewhat understandable in terms of concerns about not wanting a repeat of 2017.”

Despite the concern, she says the removal was peaceful.

“As the crane started to pull it up, that was when everybody started to cheer,” she says. “That was a really profound thing to see.”

Now the statue is down, questions abound: Where should it go? Who would own it? Could it be put up somewhere else?

The Charlottesville City Council voted in 2021 to give the statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Andrea Douglas, the center’s executive director, says the center plans to melt down the statue and cast the bronze into something new.

“Take something that has been the source of trauma and reorganize it, reconstruct it, re-engage with it,” says Douglas. “And out of that process, come to something that represents the social and cultural values of Charlottesville in its contemporary moment.”

The recasting will mark a new direction for Charlottesville, she says. But melting down the structure of Robert E. Lee has sparked anger.

“I’ve been called stupid. I’ve been called the N-word,” Douglas says. ”We’ve received emails that say things like, ‘if you melt down our statue, we’re coming for all the statues of Martin Luther King.’”

Two foundations, the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation, argue the city’s process violates state law.

“So the city knew in advance that they were transferring it to an entity that was intending to destroy it,” Charles Weber, spokesman for the foundations’ attorneys. “That’s really the legal issue since the city can’t destroy it.”

Melting down the statue eliminates opportunities to discuss what it stood for, Weber says. As he sees it, the fight over the Lee statue is about deleting history.

“Now that it’s gone, what have we got?,” he says. “Empty spaces for empty minds.”

But Douglas says removing the statue does not erase the past.

“In the age of digital reproduction, it is almost impossible,” Douglas says. “Those objects don’t go away. But what they do do for us is not hold public space in the park where Robert E. Lee existed. That’s the place where we had our international festivals. Our gay pride festivals.“

Douglas says the Lee statue has been separated into pieces, but has not been melted down. As the statue’s fate makes its way through the courts, Charlottesville residents continue to debate.

Kathy Semerling, who is white and lives outside the city, says the statue is a learning opportunity.

“When I realized these statues were put up, particularly in efforts to still minimize Blacks, it was done by the Daughters of the Confederacy, it definitely changed my opinion on all that,” Semerling says.

Monty Pearison, who is also white, lives and works outside of Charlottesville. He says the statue should have stayed and wants debate over it to end.

“I wish it would go away, to be honest with you,” Pearison says. “The more we bring it up, the more it steams other people. And so I do blame the media in some ways that they keep bringing it up.”

But for many residents, the physical presence of the statues in their community consistently reopen long-held wounds. Only their removal spurs healing.

“It still has an effect on me,” resident Shon Parker says. “But not physically seeing the remnants of it kind of eases the blow a little bit.”

James Perkins Mastromarino and Jorgelina Manna-Rea produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Ciku Theuri and Catherine Welch. Welch also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.