Charlottesville's statue of Robert E. Lee will be melted down
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Charlottesville's statue of Robert E. Lee will be melted down
A statue of Robert E. Lee is removed in Charlottesville, Va., on July 10, 2021. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center plans to transform it into “a new work of art that will reflect racial justice and inclusion.” Eze Amos/The New York Times.

by Eduardo Medina

NEW YORK, NY.- The City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted Tuesday to donate a statue of Robert E. Lee to an African American heritage center that plans to melt the bronze monument, the focus of a deadly white nationalist rally in 2017, into material for a new piece of public art.

The 4-0 vote by the council followed years of debate over the fate of the statue. Four years ago, a plan to remove the statue drew scores of white nationalists to Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally that led to violence, including the killing of a counterprotester by an Ohio man who plowed a car into a crowd.

The statue’s fate was left to a prolonged fight in court that concluded in April, when Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled that the city could take down two statues of Confederate generals, including the Lee monument. Over the summer, workers hoisted it off its granite base.

After taking it down, the city accepted proposals from bidders who wanted the Lee statue and a nearby statue of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general, that was also removed.

The Statuary Park at Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, asked for both, saying in its proposal that it wanted to rescue unwanted statues associated with the Civil War. LAXART, a Los Angeles-based visual arts organization, wanted both statues for a planned exhibition. Frederick Gierisch said in an interview Tuesday that he offered to pay the city of Charlottesville $10,000 for each statue so he could display them at his ranch in Utopia, Texas.

“I don’t think they should all be taken down and destroyed,” said Gierisch, 55. “And I think it is a part of history.

The council on Tuesday decided to give the Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which submitted a proposal under the name “Swords Into Plowshares.”

An Indiegogo campaign page for the project said that its leaders wanted to “transform a national symbol of white supremacy into a new work of art that will reflect racial justice and inclusion.”

The project’s leaders have not decided what the new artwork will look like. The campaign page said the decision would be “informed by a six-month community engagement process where residents of Charlottesville can participate in forums to help determine how the social value of inclusion can be represented through art and public space.”

Andrea Douglas, the center’s executive director, said in an interview Tuesday that Swords Into Plowshares is a community-based project.

“We’re taking something that was harmful, taking something that was the source of trauma, and transforming it into something that is more respective of the democratic, communal space, which those original objects absolutely were not,” Douglas said.

On Monday night, she had been watching the live broadcast of the City Council meeting, listening as council members appeared to be preparing to postpone a vote on the statue.

She stepped away from her computer and went to bed, believing no news would come that night.

But in the final 15 minutes of the nearly six-hour virtual meeting, which stretched into early Tuesday morning, almost every resident who called in during the public comment portion expressed frustration that the officials had yet to decide the statue’s fate.

“How much more do you want to drag out the trauma that these statues represent?” one resident asked.

Seven minutes later, Councilman Michael Payne said, “I’m happy to vote on it tonight and just get it done with.”

“So is there a resolution?” Mayor Nikuyah Walker asked.

That was when Douglas pulled up the meeting again on her computer after receiving texts from friends.

The vote to donate the statue to the heritage center was unanimous.

“So I had a glass of wine,” Douglas said.

The council’s decision followed an announcement from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday that the pedestal where a Lee statue had stood in Richmond would be removed soon. Northam said the removal process of that pedestal would be “substantially complete” by Dec. 31.

“This land is in the middle of Richmond, and Richmonders will determine the future of this space,” Northam said. “The commonwealth will remove the pedestal, and we anticipate a safe removal and a successful conclusion to this project.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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