Following state Supreme Court ruling, Charlottesville to act on Confederate monument removal

The silhouette of a statue of a man on a horse is seen against a cloudy sky.

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  • General Assembly setting stage for action on Confederate monuments

Five years, multiple court cases and a change in state law later, Charlottesville can now begin a process to remove its Confederate monuments. The next steps, however, are yet to be determined, and the City Council anticipates discussion to begin next week.

On April 1, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion to reverse previous circuit court rulings that have kept the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in place in what are now Market Street and Court Square parks. 

According to Charlottesville spokesperson Brian Wheeler, the next step will be to debrief council members Monday on the ruling. A discussion on the ruling could be added to the agenda of a previously scheduled April 5 closed meeting, Wheeler said. 

“Once council is up to speed, and council and the city manager have discussed next steps, we will have more to say,” Wheeler explained. 

Once protected by state law and a circuit court injunction, SCOVA has now ruled to “reverse and vacate the judgements and orders of the circuit court and all forms of relief granted by the circuit court to the Plaintiffs, and enter final judgement here for the City,” according to the ruling.

As the statues were erected in 1921 and 1924, 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. The General Assembly last year passed legislation that cleared the way for statue removal statewide.

“In the present case, the Statues were erected long before there was a statute which both authorized a city’s erection of a war memorial or monument and regulated the disturbance of or interference with that war memorial or monument,” the opinion reads. 

In a release from the city, Mayor Nikuyah Walker commended community members who championed the efforts to remove the monuments.

“We are forever indebted to the community for their steadfastness and perseverance over the past five years,” Walker said. “For all of us, who were on the right side of history, Bravo!”

City Manager Chip Boyles noted that his administration and the council looks “forward to engaging our community in the redesign of these park spaces in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville.”

Meanwhile, local activist, historian and University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt sees vindication for various community members for “having been right all along” and reflects on the historical spaces she has worked to contextualize through tours in recent years.

Schmidt noted that Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson and former council member Kristen Szakos had previously made this very argument about the 1997 statute amendment. State Attorney General Mark Herring also issued an amicus brief with the same argument.

Regarding the latest development in the monument case, Schmidt reiterated the trauma the community faced from the 2017 Unite the Right rally, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through town, culminating in an attack that killed activist Heather Heyer and injured several others. Two state police troopers observing what took place on Aug. 12, 2017, also died in a helicopter crash.  

“It’s sad that our community had to go through all this and basically we were right all along by a clean reading of the law,” Schmidt said.  “People are dead.” 

Schmidt was also involved in a coalition of activists who lobbied the General Assembly in support of the legislation that granted localities the authority over monuments. 

“It was a lot of political mobilization by a lot of community members here to say not only for us, but let’s allow any Virginia municipality to take down a statue if they desire and to make a decision that’s right for them,” Schmidt said. 

As the statue saga continues into its epilogue, the prologue began in 2016, when then-teenager Zyahna Bryant petitioned the city to remove the Lee statue and rename what was then known as Lee Park.

Activist Zyahna Bryant, who originally petitioned Charlottesville to remove its Confederate monuments, speaks at a 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration.

A commission and eventual council vote followed — spearheaded by former councilors Wes Bellamy and Szakos — along with various court proceedings and Unite the Right, which ostensibly was held in favor of keeping the monuments downtown. While Confederate imagery was contextualized or removed around the nation, Charlottesville’s bronze men remained in place — with those who defended the monuments occasionally frequenting the parks and saying they were there to guard them.

The Monument Fund, a group that formed in 2016 alongside some private residents, sued the city to stop the removal, disturbance or damage of the Lee and Jackson monuments, saying that state law protected the statues. Circuit Judge Richard Moore  granted an injunction in 2019.

But with last summer’s monuments law giving localities the right to remove them, the Monument Fund requested that part of the injunction be dissolved. 

With the SCOVA ruling, UVA constitutional law professor Rich Schragger wonders what that will mean for the attorney’s fees the Monument Fund had been awarded, as the recent opinion “vacates that award and lifts the injunction.”

He also wonders what next steps the city will take in light of the ruling regarding the 1997 statute. 

“It’s just a technical question if the city has to comply with the new statute or if they can move directly to removal,” Schragger said.

After the General Assembly last year passed legislation granting authority over relocation or removal of monuments to localities, Albemarle County was among the first in the region to take swift action in implementing the new process. The law went into effect July 1.

In keeping with the law, public comment had to occur, along with a 30-day period of offering the statues to museums, historical societies, other governments or military battlefields. The county accepted offers in August and, by September, its Confederate statue in Court Square came down. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook notes that despite the opinion issued today, nothing is finalized yet. 

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.

“Keep in mind that we cannot do anything until after the Supreme Court’s mandate issues, which will only be after any possibility of rehearing is exhausted,” Snook said in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow. “That could come as early as 11 days from now or as long as months from now.”

He added that council could defer to Robertson for guidance on whether or not to follow the process outlined in the 2020 legislation for local authority and that the council could make plans “even if we wouldn’t execute them for a few months yet.”

With the next chapter in reconciling the past with the present, Schmidt in the meantime is already noticing how action on Confederate monuments is affecting her Court Square tours. 

She said the removal of the monuments has so far begun to “free up space” to delve even deeper into local history. 

“I’ve already found that with the Johnny Reb statue gone, it’s literally and figuratively cleared some ground for thinking going forward,” Schmidt explained. 

She added that with less focus on “poking holes in the Lost Cause” she has discussed more details about local perspectives during the Civil War, such as conscription of freed African Americans from the courthouse steps and Black troop participation in the war. 

“I’m already seeing myself clearing away the clutter of lies from those statues and telling a story that is more honest about our community here,” Schmidt said. “We’re never going to forget the Civil War; the telling is just going to be reframed in the terms of what happened here.”

The monumental history

  • 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
  • Albemarle County removes a Confederate monument from its portion of Court Square
  • 2021: Supreme Court of Virginia upholds the legality of Charlottesville’s 2017 vote to remove Confederate monuments