Charlottesville City Council has voted to donate its statue of Robert E. Lee to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
The vote came after midnight Tuesday during a meeting in which Council also opted to postpone its vote on the city’s remaining two removed statues — that of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson as well as the statue of Sacagawea, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark — until its next public meeting on Monday, Dec. 20.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s “Swords Into Plowshares” proposal seeks to melt the Lee statue down into ingots (metal blocks) and give the community the opportunity to decide what those blocks should be transformed into, and by whom.
Immediately after Council’s vote, the heritage center, which is a Black-led organization, launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the first phase of the project. According to that page, the heritage center estimates that this phase will cost about $1.1 million. It already has $590,000 of funding for the project from the UVA Memory Project, the Open Society Foundations, and Virginia Humanities, the latter of which is funding “JSAAHC’s efforts to engage Charlottesville-area residents in a participatory process to define the overall criteria for what types of objects are placed in public space and what a community-led process might look like to determine this,” said Virginia Humanities executive director Matthew Gibson. Gibson also hopes that this engagement process can be an example for other communities around Virginia who want to transform their monuments. As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, just hours after launching, the campaign had raised nearly $5,000.
The campaign page says that the money raised will be used to “fund the transportation of the statue to a foundry and its transformation into bronze ingots;
a six-month community engagement process led by UVA’s Institute for Engagement + Negotiation; the commissioning of a nationally-recognized artist to work with the community in designing and creating a new work of art; and a salaried project manager position at the JSAAHC to oversee Swords Into Plowshares.”
The heritage center anticipates the new bronze sculptural art will be on public display in Charlottesville by 2026.
Of the five official offers the city received for the Lee statue, the heritage center’s proposal was the only one from a local entity.
Council did not speak about any of the five other proposals for the Lee statue before making its decision. In fact, councilors only mentioned one other, and the mention was brief.
During the final public comment period of the night, after it appeared that Council would table the vote on all three statues to its Dec. 20 meeting, around half a dozen community members asked Council to vote on the Lee statue.
Council then voted 4-0 (Vice Mayor Sena Magill was not present due to a family emergency) to donate the Lee statue to the heritage center. The statue will remain in storage until the heritage center is ready to begin its process.
“The decision seems fitting,” Jalane Schmidt, an activist and tenured religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, who also heads the Memory Project at UVA’s Democracy Initiative, wrote to Charlottesville Tomorrow shortly after the vote. Schmidt also helped create the proposal.
“The Jefferson School has been leading our community’s conversations about race and public space for quite a while. So it makes sense to entrust it with this endeavor,” added Schmidt. “The ‘Swords Into Plowshares’ vision has been long in the making. It emerged from conversations in which people (including Very Respectable Leaders who would never publicly say these words) repeatedly remarked, in a joking-not-joking way, ‘we oughta melt it down!’
“People are often just full of talk. But we started asking around. What would it take to make this dream a reality? How could we involve the community in this creative transformation? I’m excited to see what our city’s public space might look like in a few years.”
Though Council took action on Lee, it tabled the vote on the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the Sacagawea, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark statues to the Dec. 20 meeting.
Various community members called in during the first community matters period to voice their support for a proposal from the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center’s for the Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark statue, which proposes recontextualizing the statue with what it calls an accurate, responsible telling of the expedition story and Sacagawea’s role in it.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker, and councilors Heather Hill and Michael Payne favored the proposal put forth by the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Darden Towe Park, which had sought input from Sacagawea’s Lemhi-Shoshone descendants.
Rose Ann Abrahamson, great-great-great niece of Sacagawea, called in during the community matters period to express her support for the Exploratory Center’s proposal. She said she’s seen many depictions of her ancestor, and in 2019 (10 years after she helped add to the base of the statue a commemorative plaque outlining Sacagawea’s role in the expedition), she told City Council that “this statue in Charlottesville is the worst we have ever seen.”
At that time, she said that the statue’s “outwardly offensive depiction” of Sacagawea, crouching behind a tall-standing Lewis and Clark, is also an inaccurate portrayal of her contributions to the expedition.
Monday night, Abrahamson, who contributed to the Exploratory Center’s proposal, said, “I believe that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark told us what we should do today, 200 years ago. Clark stated in 1806: ‘Sacagawea, who accompanied the expedition on a long and fatiguing route to the Pacific Ocean and back deserved a greater reward for her attention and services than we had in our power to give her.’ So we ask that today, on Dec. 6, 2021, let us give her her due reward as a dignified catalyst of peace and unity between cultures and place her in the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, so that we can celebrate this month, and this holiday, in peace, knowing that we made the right decision.”
Snook expressed interest in a proposal submitted by Harland Crow, a real estate investor from Dallas, Texas, who is offering $325,000 plus moving expenses to relocate the statue to what he describes as an “extensive display of sculptures, artwork, and other historical artifacts” on the Old Parkland business campus in Dallas.
Snook supported accepting Crow’s offer and using the $325,000 as a “nest egg” for improving Market Street and Court Square parks (former site of the Lee and Jackson statues, respectively), something for which the city likely won’t have money for years, with an expensive school reconfiguration project on the horizon. He noted, too, that the $1 million Council appropriated for the removal and recontextualization of all three statues has already been used up: $980,000 went to removal, and another $20,000 went to police overtime (among other things) during the removal process.
Walker, Hill, and Payne did not agree with him.
“We are here today prioritizing an Indigenous woman, but that hasn’t always been the case,” said Walker, who emphasized that in making this decision, Council and the community have to do more than just listen to the Lemhi-Shoshone people, to Native people. “You have to learn” from them, she said, and allow them to lead, not just advise on, the decision-making process.
Walker also expressed concerns over the statue being placed outside in public spaces, where passersby would be forced to see it — whether they wish to or not.
“I have said to almost everybody I’ve talked to, the entire time, I don’t like anything about that statue, and seeing it in the park [Darden Towe Park] I think is problematic, too. But selling it to this individual in Texas is more problematic than anything,” Walker said. “We are making a moral argument here. So I don’t think bringing the dollar amount into any of those equations, or the fear surrounding what could happen if someone doesn’t like our votes, because what we’ve been saying as a community is, ‘How do we move forward here?’”
Hill, too, said that this is a case where it’s important to separate fiscal thinking from moral thinking, and that she’s been very moved by the community support for the two local proposals.
Payne said that he wouldn’t support Crow’s offer, even though that $325,000 would be useful. The idea of telling a narrative with public art, in public spaces, “I think that is inseparable from the final disposition of all three of these statues. I don’t see how we can actually separate those things.”
Councilors ultimately decided that they’d like to talk with City Attorney Lisa Robertson, as well as the Exploratory Center, about the terms of its commitment to recontextualization.
Walker said that unless Council can work with the Exploratory Center to ensure a satisfactory long-term effort that reflects the values, the mission, the vision for recontextualization put forth in the call for proposals, she won’t vote for it.
The only proposal councilors discussed for the Jackson statue (there were five total) was one from LAXART, a Los Angeles-based art museum that proposed to use both the Lee and Jackson statues as components of a contemporary art exhibit. LAXART offered $100,000 for the pair, and councilors wondered whether the organization would be interested in Jackson only, and how much they’d pay for the single statue.
All four councilors present supported Jackson going to LAXART — Council received no local proposals for the Jackson statue — and asked staff to ask the organization if it would indeed take Jackson only. Snook worried that voting right away to convey the Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center might lessen the city’s bargaining power with LAXART and therefore tank the city’s opportunity to relocate the Jackson statue and get some money for other projects in the process.
Council plans to take a vote on the remaining two statues at its next public meeting on Monday, Dec. 20. It will be the last council meeting for both Walker and Hill, whose seats will be filled by Juandiego Wade and Brian Pinkston as of midnight on January 1, 2022.