After five years of court cases, a white supremacist rally, a change in state law and now a mandate from the state’s Supreme Court, Charlottesville can finally act on removal of its Confederate monuments. But when will the city act, and how? The answer could come on May 3.
Last week, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued the mandate that Charlottesville’s monuments of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were never subject to state laws that protect war memorials, meaning the City Council could have legally removed them all along.
As the statues were gifted to the city and erected in 1921 (Jackson) and 1924 (Lee), the ruling argues they are not subject to state law preventing the removal of war monuments. The opinion references a 1997 state law extension that gave Virginian cities the authority to erect war memorials. As Lee and Jackson were erected before 1997, and outside of the city having legal authority to erect or remove them, SCOVA argued the state law didn’t apply to them. In general, Virginia’s laws are not retroactive.
“[The Virginia Supreme Court] held that the original law never applied to the statues, so Charlottesville always had the ability to take them down,” said Rich Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor. “Because the language of the revised statute, which allows local governments to remove, tracks the language of the old statute in important ways, the city could take the position that the new statute’s procedural requirements do not apply to the statues and therefore the city can act immediately to remove them.”
However, it seems the city has a different option in mind. The change in state law took effect last summer and outlined a process for removal. Neighboring Albemarle County, which was subject to the original statue law, was among the first localities in the state to utilize it for the removal of Confederate monuments outside its courthouse.
According to Brian Wheeler, a spokesperson for the city, staff will discuss the city’s next steps with the council at its May 3 City Council meeting and added it could be likely that the council would proceed with using the new state law.
“We anticipate Council will reaffirm its intentions through the General Assembly’s new statutory process,” Wheeler said.
Given that a previous council’s vote to remove monuments lead to losing a lawsuit and an injunction, Schragger notes how the current council could be cautious moving forward — despite the mandate siding in the city’s favor.
“If the city is being cautious, however, it could decide to comply with the process outlined in the new statute, which would entail a longer timeline,” Schragger said.
A longer timeline adding to what some community members say is already an unnecessarily long timeline.
“Charlottesville was never subject to the 1997 amended law, and the 1904 original law anyway,” said Jalane Schmidt, a community organizer, antiracist activist and UVA religious studies professor who has been a vocal opponent of the statues for years. Legally, the city could have removed the statues sooner.
The fact that they haven’t “is sad,” said Schmidt.
Not only have the Lee and Jackson statues intimidated Black community members since they were gifted to the city in the 1920s, during the Jim Crow era, they continue to do so, she said.
“People are dead, and our community was traumatized,” said Schmidt in reference to the Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally and other prior and subsequent, related events where neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups showed up to, among other things, oppose the removal of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues.
“We’re still dealing with that because a local circuit court judge misinterpreted a statute,” said Schmidt.
University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt and Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Executive Director Andrea Douglas lead an Aug. 9, 2019, walking tour with historical contextualization of various monuments throughout Court Square and at Market Street Park in downtown Charlottesville.
Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods / Charlottesville Tomorrow
“I’m impatient, but I don’t see them as stalling,” she added. “I see it so far as this time that they are taking is [out of] an abundance of caution.”
During that May 3 meeting, the City Council can vote on whether to have a public hearing; if it does, that hearing and a council vote could happen after 30 days, during the council’s June 7 meeting. If the council then votes to remove the statues, as it did in February (Lee) and September (Jackson) of 2017, there will be yet another 30 day period, this one for entertaining offers from entities that want the statues, such as museums and battlefield organizations. The council would be able to vote on that decision as early as July.
Historian and UVA professor John Edwin Mason, who served on the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, said he is “disappointed” that the council is “not in a hurry to make up its mind” and questions if all members of the city’s legislative body fully understand the urgency some community members feel around removing them sooner rather than later.
“These statues are symbols of white supremacy for their connections to the Lost Cause narrative, but also because they were erected at the height of the Jim Crow era,” Mason explained. “I’m not sure the council understands their potency and the strength with which they convey the message.”
Calling the monuments a “rallying point for hatred,” he notes how the monuments were not only the gathering place for white supremacists and neo-Nazis during the summer of 2017 and the deadly Unite the Right rally, but how they have continued to attract firearm-bearing militias and white supremacists.
Regardless of how the council proceeds in removing and relocating the bronze men and their horses, Mason hopes that they are properly contextualized.
“As a historian, I want them to be available for researchers in the same way Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society owns Ku Klux Klan robes and other historical objects,” he explained. “It’s important to have [the monuments] available to researchers and historians, but that they’re not out on public display as rallying points for hatred.”
Schmidt hopes that the council will use this time to be deliberate and thoughtful, to place the statues responsibly, not in a place where they’d continue to harm a community, and not just with the group that offers the best price.
She also hopes the council won’t prolong the process by taking vacation weeks — and thus postponing hearings and votes — before making a decision.
Not only does this lengthen the timeline for statue removal by a few months, it puts the possible removal at a time when the community is already on high alert due to the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, which often brings an increased presence of armed neo-Confederates — and others — to town, particularly to Market Street and Court Square parks, where the Lee and Jackson statues currently stand. Last summer, the council passed an ordinance banning guns from public parks.
While the current City Council is not composed of anyone who was on the council in 2017, all current members lived in Charlottesville at that time.
“It’s also surprising to me that these councilors, all of whom lived in Charlottesville in 2017, don’t understand how for so many Charlottesvillians [the monuments] are symbols of the trauma of the white supremacist terrorist attacks,” Mason said.
Adding that the monuments now also have the blood of those injured or killed during the Unite the Right rally, he hopes the monuments will be responsibly relocated.
“We don’t want them to be out there where they can continue to tell a distorted story about the Civil War where they continue to embody the ideals of Jim Crow,” Mason said.
On their future location and potential to be viewed, he said the statues can also reflect newer points of history — such as the rally where activist Heather Heyer was killed, Virginia State Police lieutenant pilot H. Jay Cullen and trooper pilot Berke Bates died in a helicopter crash, and several others were seriously injured.
“Everybody’s going to know where these statues came from, so they will also be living symbols of those terror attacks of 2017,” Mason explained. “And they’ll continue to be metaphorically covered in the blood of Heather Heyer and the people who were injured on that day.”
Meanwhile, Schmidt is appreciative that the council will discuss next steps. She just hopes it won’t prolong this yearslong journey.
“I’m going to be a generous spirit at the moment, because I want everything to go well,” said Schmidt. “But when it’s not, that’s when I’ll be making noise.”