Albemarle County votes to remove its Confederate monuments from Court Square

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A saga that began in Charlottesville City Hall four years ago is getting a new chapter added to it two blocks away in Albemarle County. Thursday night, following a special public hearing, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to begin the process for the removal and relocation of the Confederate statues in the portion of Court Square legally in the county. 

A new state law that took effect July 1 gives local governments autonomy over what to do with their monuments, and Albemarle County became one of the first in the region to take action on it.

In keeping with the law, public comment must occur, along with a 30-day period of offering the statues to museums, historical societies, other governments or military battlefields. Beginning on Aug. 7 and ending on Sep. 5, the county will accept offers from interested parties to take the statues. By as early as Sep. 6, the “Johnny Reb,” cannon and cannonball statues can be removed.

Although the county will now begin accepting offers from interested parties, it still retains autonomy on the future of the statues should it not find a suitable offer. According to County Attorney Greg Kamptner, the statute gives the Board of Supervisors “sole discretion” to decide what to do with their memorials. 

“If we have an offer that we do not think is suitable, we can simply say ‘no,’” Supervisors Chairman Ned Gallaway said. 

During the public hearing, many area residents spoke in favor of removing the statue. Frank Dukes expressed concern that a group could relocate the statue onto private property where it would be visible by public, similar to the large Confederate flags  hoisted near major roadways around the state, like the one off I-64 in Louisa County.

Many speakers noted the message that the statue sends to people of color passing through Court Square is that they were not equal.

Local attorney Bruce Williamson reiterated that statement. He also said the statue sends a problematic message to white residents that can “sow the seeds of confidence” in white superiority.

“The message is, ‘We’re in charge. This is our place,’” Williamson said.

The place where the statue resides frequented remarks during the public comment, with supervisors and residents alike noting that the public grounds of the courthouse were not an appropriate place.

Ahead of the meeting, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association drafted a resolution to support the removal of the statue. Bar Association president, Bryan Slaughter, spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow prior to the public hearing. He said the association typically stays away from political involvement, but that the statue goes beyond politics. 

“It was decided that this was more of a justice issue, and not a political one,” Slaughter said. “The Johnny Reb statue is different because it is on the courthouse steps. It effectively guards the courthouse. People have to walk by this confederate soldier and flag and that just isn’t right from our perspective.”

Many speakers noted the time frame when the statue was erected, shortly following the Reconstruction era and during the time of Jim Crow laws. The Johnny Reb statue was erected in 1909 and paid for by the county, city and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. As the statue is not of a prominent Confederate figure, but rather a representation of a confederate soldier, it has been colloquially referred to as Johnny Reb. Johnny Reb as a symbol came to represent the common Confederate soldier.

Charlottesville’s bronze men still tied up in court

Demonstrators stop at Market Street Park, near the Robert E. Lee statue.

In the city of Charlottesville, the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were erected in 1924 and 1921, respectively. The bronze Confederate generals, which are near Johnny Reb, are on city property and still are bound by an injunction that has yet to be lifted. 

The Monument Fund, a group formed in 2016, sued the city to stop the removal, disturbance or damage of the Lee and Jackson monuments, saying it violated state law protecting them. A judge granted the injunction last year.

But with the new monuments law giving localities the right to remove them, the Monuments Fund requested part of the injunction be dissolved. 

“Rather than extending the litigation at great cost to both parties, the plaintiffs seek an early resolution by modifying the language of the existing permanent injunction to reflect the language of the new law,” the June 5 release read. 

Though the steps to remove the monuments are outlined by the legislation that passed earlier this year, Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard Moore would still need to alter the injunction as the plaintiffs have requested before the City Council can begin its process. 

“The basis for the litigation has disappeared because of the modification for the statue,” said Rich Schragger, a law professor at University of Virginia. “The judge should just lift it on his own accord.”

According to Schragger, because the injunction is a court order, it cannot “go away until the judge says so.”

While there is no longer a legal basis for the injunction, without the judge acting on it, the injunction still has to be obeyed as law.

Moore could not be reached at the time of this publication, and city spokesman Brian Wheeler said Thursday that there are no new updates for now. 

The history so far

  • 1904: The General Assembly passes a law allowing for the construction and protection of war memorials. Initially, it only applies to counties and only covers Confederate monuments
  • 1921: Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statue erected in what is now Court Square Park
  • 1924: Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue erected in what is now Market Street Park
  • 1997: War memorial law extended to include cities
  •  2016: Zyahna Bryant, then a student at Charlottesville High School, petitions the City Council for the removal of the statue of Lee and the renaming of Lee Park
  •  2017: Growing support of Bryant’s work and the 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces compels the Charlottesville City Council to vote for the removal of both the Lee and Jackson statues
  • A lawsuit is filed to halt the city’s plans to remove the statue, citing state law
  • White supremacists come to Charlottesville throughout the summer, culminating in the deadly Aug. 12 rally
  • 2019: A judge rules that the City Council statue vote was in violation of state law, grants an injunction barring their removal
  • Democrats take control of the General Assembly, setting the stage for altering the state law barring the removal of war memorials
  • 2020: The plaintiffs in the suit are awarded more than $300,000 in attorney’s fees; the city appeals the decision
  • General Assembly passes legislation granting localities authority of their monuments to take effect July 1
  • Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against removal of Charlottesville’s statues request part of the injunction be dissolved