The bronze statue of Robert E. Lee that was the rallying point for white supremacists on Aug. 12, 2017 has been out of sight for over a year. But it is far from out of mind.

It’s now the centerpiece of Swords Into Plowshares, a community art project led by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which intends to melt the statue down and use the metal for a new public art piece.

The city gave its statue to the Heritage Center in December 2021 for that express purpose. The project has already begun, with participation and support from hundreds of community members and dozens of local organizations.

But now, the statue’s fate is once again in the air. Weeks after the Heritage Center received the statue, two Confederate legacy groups sued it and the city in an attempt to take the statue from the Center. 

The suit alleges it was illegal for the city to give its statue to an organization knowing that the organization planned to destroy it. 

“That’s a more complicated argument than it seems,” said Rich Schragger, a University of Virginia School of Law professor, because it has to do with the language of the Virginia statute that gives localities the right to remove Confederate monuments. 

(Disclosure: Rich Schragger is on Charlottesville Tomorrow’s board of directors. Board members receive no preferential treatment in our reporting and editorial processes.)

The law says that “a locality may remove, relocate, contextualize, or cover any such monument or memorial on the locality’s public property.” 

It does not expressly say a statue may be destroyed. A judge will now decide if that is allowed.

“The law prohibits them from destroying the statue,” said Charles “Buddy” Weber, an attorney and a spokesperson for the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Ralph Main. “And so when they passed the thing to the Jefferson School knowing that they were going to destroy it, that was a violation of the law.”

No Charlottesville city official responded to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s request for comment on the suit. 

Chris Tate, the attorney representing the Heritage Center, said only that: “The Center is confident in its legal position.” A judge has since ruled that the plaintiffs’ complaints do not apply to the Heritage Center, as it is not a government agency.

If the Confederate groups win, the judge may return the Lee statue to the city, which will then decide what to do with it. The plaintiffs have asked that the Heritage Center be excluded from receiving the statue again.

The Heritage Center’s executive director, Andrea Douglas, would not say where the statue is, or if it has already been melted.

She will say that the Center intends to complete a community art project whether it’s allowed to keep the statue or not.

“Our goal was to create an opportunity for a democratic consideration of public space,” Douglas said, “and then to put something in that public space that the community decided was appropriate, and in so doing, giving voice to those people who in 1920 through ’24, were not part of that process.” 

The Lee and Jackson statues, along with two others, were erected in the early 1920s.

The Swords Into Plowshares project kicked off in early March, with an event that drew about 150 people.

A few already had their own ideas for what to do with the bronze, said Frank Dukes, a UVA architecture professor and community engagement coordinator for Swords Into Plowshares. Someone suggested using the metal for a few different art pieces throughout the city.  

Another event in May featured dance music from local DJs and Caribbean food from Pearl Island. There, people discussed the project and filled out a survey, which is still open for replies. 

“What stories need to be told about Charlottesville?” the survey asks. “How might new art support your hopes for our community? How do public spaces show they are welcoming to all?”

By last week, 350 people had filled out the survey, said Dukes. Others — like some elementary school students and their teachers — have discussed the questions informally.

When asked about their hopes for the community, one child said, “Everybody’s included, and things don’t cost very much.” Another envisioned “a community that helps each other.” Others said that public art should convey bravery, truth, resilience, respect, kindness, peace and welcoming.

In addition to the survey, more than 65 local groups, such as Prolyfck Run Crew, the Boys & Girls Club, and African American Teaching Fellows, have asked Swords Into Plowshares community representatives to speak to their organizations about the project. 

Not all of the responses to Swords Into Plowshares have been encouraging. As soon as City Council gave the Lee statue to the Heritage Center, hackers tried to interfere with the Center’s online fundraising efforts for the project, said Douglas. 

Its staff also began receiving disturbing comments from all over the country.

“We were described as ‘stupid n – – – – – s,’” Douglas said. “We were told that if we tried to replace the statue, ‘with a n – – – – – statue,’ they’d come and get them all.

Andrea Douglas describes the intention of placing the monuments where they reside within what are now named Court Square and Market Street parks. Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

“That is suggestive of the kind of virulent hatred that we are working against. These aren’t zero-sum games for us,” said Douglas. “You know the kinds of decisions that you’re making could bring violence to yourself, and we understand what that fear looks like. But nonetheless, we know that it’s really important that we close this open wound actively rather than letting a kind of stasis occur where we all just sort of go back to normal. It’s really important to redefine what normal means.”

The Lee statue is one of four that Paul Goodloe McIntire gave to the city for public display in the 1920s. McIntire made the gift more than 50 years after the Civil War had ended, and during the Jim Crow era of legal racial segregation. 

In 2016, nearly 100 years after the city erected the Lee statue in the public park on Market Street, city officials started seriously debating its future.

That year, Zyahna Bryant, then a 15-year-old high school student, called on city officials to remove the statues, which she said were monuments not to war, but to white supremacy. Months later, most members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces recommended that City Council keep the Lee and Jackson statues in place, but re-name the parks that bore their names and recontextualize the statues. But, in February 2017, City Council voted to relocate Lee.

Demonstrators stop at Market Street Park, near the Robert E. Lee statue. Credit: Mike Kropf/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Shortly after that, in March 2017, The Monument Fund, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and 11 individuals sued the city to prevent removal of the Lee and Jackson statues. Ralph Main, attorney for the plaintiffs in the current suit over the Lee statue, served as the attorney for the plaintiffs in that suit, too. Charles “Buddy” Weber, Main’s spokesperson, was a plaintiff in that suit.

A Charlottesville Circuit Court judge later issued an injunction prohibiting the city from removing the statues.

Less than two weeks after that ruling, on Mother’s Day, a group of white supremacists descended upon Lee Park (now Market Street Park) wielding torches and vowing to protect the Lee statue. Two months later, on July 8, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in front of the Jackson statue, a few blocks from Lee. A month after that — five years ago this week — various white supremacist, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups used the Lee statue as a gathering place for its violent and deadly Unite the Right rally.

Over the next two years, legal and social arguments continued over whether the statues should stay or go, whether the city had the legal authority to cover or remove the statues, whether the statues were war memorials, and more. Messages like “Black Lives Matter,” “This Is Racist,” and “Impeach Trump” were spray painted, anonymously, on the statue bases. Confederate heritage groups sent representatives to guard the statues.

In 2019, the Virginia General Assembly granted localities the power to make decisions about their Confederate statues, but the injunction preventing Charlottesville from removing its monument remained until 2021. Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statues, including Lee, in July of that year.

The center of Market Street Park where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee once stood is now empty. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center intends to melt the bronze statue and transform it into new works of art to be placed in the city. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

The city solicited proposals from groups that wanted the statues and Council voted on Dec. 7, 2021 to give the Lee statue to the Heritage Center — the only local entity to submit a proposal for that statue.

One of the plaintiffs currently suing the city, The Ratcliffe Foundation, wanted both the Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson statues for the Ellenbrook Mansion, the ancestral home of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart in Rosedale, Virginia, and submitted a proposal to the city last summer. 

At the time of publication, litigation is ongoing and no trial date has been set, though some of the motions are scheduled to be heard in Charlottesville Circuit Court in October.

Because this case hinges on interpreting a statute, either party could appeal the judges final decision to the appellate court, or even to the Supreme Court of Virginia, said UVA Law School’s Schragger. If that happens, it could be years before the case is resolved.

In the meantime, Swords Into Plowshares will carry on with the community engagement portion of the project until the lawsuit ends, said Dukes.

“In a city that has come out of something as tragic as 2017 was, if we are not introspective, if we don’t spend time galvanizing those things that are important to us, and making it clear through a process to all of the people who live here, then what we’re only continuing to do is maintain the disparities that have brought us to this place to begin with,” said Douglas. Disparities “that made it possible for somebody, or an organization or a group, to think that this was fecund ground for hate and white supremacy and intolerance. And most of the people that I speak with do not aspire to those goals.”

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Erin O'Hare

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's neighborhoods reporter. I’ve never met a stranger and love to listen, so, get in touch with me here. If you’re not already subscribed to our free newsletter, you can do that here, and we’ll let you know when there’s a fresh story for you to read. I’m looking forward to getting to know more of you.