This story has been updated on Oct. 23, 2021 with correct information regarding Henry Shrady’s work on a Ulysses S. Grant memorial.
A few years ago, Jalane Schmidt started hearing a common refrain.
“We should just melt them down.”
At first, she heard it uttered behind closed doors, with little seriousness. But as the Charlottesville community began engaging more with the idea of removing its Confederate statues — an idea proposed in a petition by then-high school student Zyahna Bryant and furthered by the horror of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 — she heard it more and more, louder and louder, and in public.
“We should melt those statues down.”
Now, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, with the support of a variety of local, state, and national organizations, wants to do exactly that: Melt down the bronze statue of Robert E. Lee into bronze ingots (blocks) that will then be transformed into another piece of artwork, whose form, location, and creator will be determined by the community.
The Heritage Center “Swords Into Plowshares” proposal is one of six bids that the City of Charlottesville has received for its statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.
On July 7, Charlottesville City Council voted to remove its three statues from public view. They acted quietly and swiftly in the interest of community safety, Vice Mayor Sena Magill told Charlottesville Tomorrow at the time. A hired contractor removed the City’s Lee and Jackson statues, as well as the statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea three days later, on July 10. Early the next morning, that same contractor carted away yet another local monument to white supremacy — this one belonging to the University of Virginia — the particularly violent “Conqueror of the Northwest” monument to George Rogers Clark that sat on a piece of property at a major intersection on West Main Street.
Since then, all four statues have sat in undisclosed storage locations.
Between June 7 and July 21, Charlottesville City Manager Chip Boyles received 33 statements of interests from various individuals, groups, and organizations seeking ownership of one or both of the Confederate statues, as well as 11 for the Lewis and Clark statue.
The deadline for serious proposals, however, was last Friday, October 15, at 3 p.m. The city manager’s office received six proposals for the generals. City Council can choose to go with one of these six proposals, or they could choose to do nothing and leave the statues in storage for an indefinite amount of time.
The Statuary Park at Gettysburg requests both Confederate statues (and the Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea statue), stating that its “mission is to rescue unwanted statues associated with Civil War era figures as well as other 19th century figures. Our mission is to rescue, collect, preserve, and present to the public.” They only want the statues, not the bases (too expensive to move), and propose that the City help them write the Mellon Foundation Grant for the money to move them.
Frederick Gierisch, who introduces himself in his hand-written letter as “an individual family man with a great wife and (4) great kids aged 3-11 years.” He wants to purchase the statues and their bases, to display on his 2,800-acre ranch in Utopia, Texas, “with other items I have collected over the years.” In his initial statement of interest, Gierisch wrote that he “is looking to save and preserve some of the south’s history…. I don’t believe the left will be happy until all history is destroyed which is a shame because it is our history whether good or bad.” He also expressed interest “in other statues, etc.” that are being removed from other localities, and asked that the city refer any other localities removing their statues to him.
The Ratcliffe Foundation, which operates the Ellenbrook Museum — ancestral home of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart — in Russell County, Virginia submitted a proposal. (It’s also interested in the statues being removed from Richmond.) It has offered the city $50,000 for both Confederate generals and their bases. “As a museum with a deep connection to the Stuart family, we are especially interested in maintaining the artifacts as a group to present the best opportunity to appropriately contextualize their history,” this proposal reads. “We are committed to a fair outcome that allows Charlottesville to reinvest the proceeds from the relocation of these monuments into vulnerable communities impacted by these monuments.”
LAXART, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit visual arts organization, requested both statues, which “will each be given to an artist to use as the basis for a new work of art,” the proposal states. “These newly commissioned works will be part of an exhibition whose working title is MONUMENTS,” co-curated by LAXART’s executive director, Hamza Walker, and renowned artist Kara Walker. The exhibition, planned for fall 2023, would feature a number of decommissioned Confederate monuments alongside contemporary works that together intend to show America’s racist history, the proposal says.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is interested in the Jackson statue only. The proposal acknowledges that enslaved people were brought in to clear the site for the asylum building, which accepted its first patients in 1864, the year after West Virginia split from Virginia to become its own state — and part of the Union. The asylum, located in Jackson’s childhood home of Weston, West Virginia, was decommissioned as a mental health facility in 1994 and is now a historical site and haunted house, its apparently abundant paranormal activity attracting visitors from all over.
The Asylum’s proposal also claims that the organization conducts what it describes as “heritage tours” that discuss the hospital’s history of racial segregation, its role in perpetuating the misconception that “mental health issues only affected middle class white persons,” and the hospital’s “disproportionate use of procedures like the Trans Orbital Lobotomy on women and patients of color.” It believes the statue would add to those conversations. “Stonewall Jackson grew up here, who better than us to take the responsibility to teach about racism, than the community that raised him,” they say.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s “Swords Into Plowshares” proposal is the only one to come from a local organization. It is also the only proposal that is focused on, and would involve, the local community most affected by the Lee statue.
If City Council chooses to give the Lee statue to the heritage center, a contractor will cut the massive bronze statue into pieces and melt it into ingots (blocks), JSAAHC Executive Director Andrea Douglas said in an interview with Charlottesville Tomorrow. Those bronze ingots would then be held in reserve throughout a six-month or so community engagement process focused on designing an artist call for proposals. From there, that CFP would lead to another round of community engagement that would culminate in an artists’ residency through The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, and, Douglas said, “hopefully an object or objects that we could then gift to the city.”
The “Swords Into Plowshares” proposal offers to take on the cost of the statue’s transformation at no cost to the city — the heritage center will pay for it.
“The aim of it is to redress the use of Charlottesville’s public spaces for the propaganda of white supremacy,” Douglas said. “Our aim is not to destroy an object, it’s to transform it. It’s to use the very raw material of its original making and create something that is more representative of the alleged democratic values of this community, more inclusive of those voices that in 1920 had no ability to engage in the artistic process at all. We are also hoping that those who believe that these statues are important to their heritage will participate in a process that would include even that voice. What we want is a process driven by this community.”
Douglas said the process would give particular weight to the voices of the descendants of individuals who were enslaved throughout the community. That’s what the committee for UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers did, she said, with success.
Frank Dukes, a UVA architecture professor who helped guide the community engagement process for the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, said that “Swords Into Plowshares” process would be similar, not just asking what this art should be, but, what does the community want it to represent? What stories does the community need this new piece of art to tell? And whose stories need to be told?
“I really want to make sure that unlike the previous Confederate statues, that the work of art becomes something that the vast majority of the community can say, ‘This is us. This is who we want to be. This represents us,’” he said.
That prioritization of the community is “part of the beauty of this plan,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt got excited when talking with Charlottesville Tomorrow about the transformation of the material, of using that bronze to make something new. It’s not about destroying the statue, or even about erasing history as some folks claim, Schmidt said. “We will tell the history,” she said, that “100 years ago there was this statue put up to honor these people who fought a war to maintain slavery. The community decided to take them down. The community was attacked, went through further reflection, decided to make this statue into something new, and that’s how the statue got here,” she said.
That is, of course, an oversimplification, a mere fraction, of the history the new object would tell, Schmidt said. “But imagine the kinds of transformative educational trips that can take place? We’re not forgetting history, we’re saying that these monuments were an inadequate statement about our values. Because memory is different from history, and [memory] is what these monuments are about.”
The “Swords Into Plowshares” proposal requests the Lee statue only, “because the Lee statue has become a symbol in every single way, synonymous with the [Confederate] battle flag,” Douglas said. “While the Jackson statue is also symbolic, it doesn’t hold the same level of problematics as the [Lee] statue. And from a purely aesthetic point of view, [the Lee statue is] a minor work, let’s be honest about that,” Douglas added, and she would know: She has a doctorate in art history and, along with Schmidt, a tenured professor in UVA’s religious studies department, has led heavily-researched walking tours of the area’s Confederate monuments.
Strangely enough, the artist commissioned to create the Lee statue, Henry Shrady, delayed the project while he worked on his magnum opus — a memorial to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Washington, D.C. — and died before he could complete the model of Lee. Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant, finished the statue.
Repurposing metal isn’t a novel concept, Douglas emphasized. “Objects have always been used, particularly in times of war, to make bells, or to make cannons, or to make anything else. So in the context of even art-making, the notion of repurposing raw materials is not antithetical to the process. Artists repurpose all the time.
“To consider these objects [statues] as rarefied and therefore unable to be undone in that way, really is not even responsive to the idea of art-making in and of itself, which is all about evolution and experimentation, and response to cultural spaces. What we’re doing within the context of the overall practice is not out of bounds. […] This is not a shocking thing. It’s only shocking because somehow, these particular objects have been imbued with a kind of power that says they are supposed to be eternal, and are supposed to carry their representation into not just a single future, but all futures,” Douglas said.
Schmidt and Douglas had hoped to submit a proposal for the Johnny Reb (also known as “At Ready”) statue outside the Albemarle County Courthouse, too, said Schmidt, but they didn’t have all their ducks in a row before the county’s Board of Supervisors made their decision.
“We couldn’t find a suitable local organization to take it in,” Schmidt said. Though the Johnny Reb statue itself was a mass-produced object with little artistic value, its base — citing the Albemarle Daughters of the Confederacy, names of men (white men) who fought in the Virginia Infantry, the cavalry, artillery, etc., said Schmidt — had local significance, which cannot be said for the Lee or Jackson statues. “Even though I’m always trying to get rid of these things,” Schmdit said, laughing, the local significance of this one would have been worth keeping it around.
Johnny Reb instead ended up at the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation, which Schmidt called “a regional purveyor of Lost Cause propaganda.” She’s convinced that the county supervisors “hadn’t done their homework.”
The county supervisors chose the foundation from a list of eight groups and one individual who requested the monument — though most wanted only the two cannons and cannonballs.
At the time, the foundation said it would place the statue on a battlefield to “mark the location where Virginia Troops fought and died for Virginia on that particular field.” The group planned to re-dedicated it as “The Virginia Monument,” something for which several supervisors at the time expressed approval.
Schmidt noted that research has shown that, like Albemarle’s “Johnny Reb,” removed Confederate monuments can, and have, reemerged into public spaces. And, allowing the statues to move to another community, where they could have the same negative effects, isn’t the moral thing to do, both Schmidt and Douglas said.
“It is morally bereft to send them to other places, number one. Number two, there are not that many places, realistically, that should or can have them,” said Douglas. “So you have to get to the next question: What is it that can be done?,” and that’s something many communities across the country are grappling with as they also remove their Confederate monuments.
City councilors have said that they do not want the statues to go to another place where they would be venerated or used to celebrate the Confederacy.
Douglas believes the “Swords Into Plowshares” project could be a “restorative moment” in the city’s history, one the community has to seize while it’s here.
Twenty eight local, state, and national individuals and organizations, contributed letters of support of the JSAAHC’s proposal.
Bertha French and DeTeasa Gathers, co-chairs of the Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia, wrote that the project “will take our city’s painful history and turn it into an opportunity for healing. […] we hope you give us the opportunity to participate in shaping the narrative about our city.”
The Equal Justice Initiative, a national organization that worked with the community on the commemoration and memorialization of the lynching of John Henry James, also wrote a letter of support. “Throughout that process, JSAAHC worked to engage the Charlottesville community in meaningful education and reflection. We encourage you to grant them the opportunity to do so again in shaping the narrative about Charlottesville,” the letter read.
Earlier this week, just a few days after the final deadline, Charlottesville Tomorrow reached out to City Council to ask their thoughts on the JSAAHC’s proposal. Councilors Lloyd Snook and Heather Hill both said that while they were aware of the proposals, they hadn’t had the time to read through them yet and did not have comment at that time.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker also said that she needed time to explore the proposal before commenting, adding, “It sounds like an exciting idea.”
Schmidt acknowledged that City Council has a lot on its plate right now, between budget season, funding a school reconfiguration project, filling the city manager and police chief positions, approving the overdue Comprehensive Plan, and more. This is one thing that the community, led by the experienced and trusted JSAAHC, could take off City Council’s plate, she said.
“With this proposal, you have been invited to support Black leadership,” Schmidt, director of the Memory Project at UVA’s Democracy Initiative, wrote in her letter of support, in which she expressed hope that City Council votes to let the community take over the project.
“Should you accept it,” Schmidt wrote, “Charlottesville will have another accomplishment of which to be proud. In 2017, the entire world witnessed our trauma and, more importantly, our resistance. The world is watching what we do now with these statues. Be brave.”