Nine members appointed to serve on Mayor Mike Signer’s Blue Ribbon Commission—created to make a recommendation to City Council on how to treat race, memorials and public spaces after a major controversy regarding the General Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park—now have about half a year and $10,000 to make it happen.
“I think the biggest problem will be that a lot of people think there are people who have already made up their minds,” says commission member Frank Dukes, a long-time mediator and UVA faculty member trained in facilitation who founded the University & Community Action for Racial Equity almost a decade ago. “This is going to be a learning process. I think people will join us in that willingness to learn and keep their minds open.”
Three members, Gordon Fields, Rachel Lloyd and Margaret O’Bryant, were appointed to represent the Human Rights Commission, PLACE Design Task Force and Historic Resources Committee, respectively.
Lloyd, a professional preservation planner and historical landscape architect, says different generations may reinterpret their community’s history over time. In fact, the opinion overload regarding Lee’s legacy in town began when a local high school student petitioned to have the Confederate soldier’s memorial removed and his park renamed.
“I doubt any of us are naive enough to think that the process will be easy or that our recommendations, whatever they are, will be universally popular,” Lloyd says.
O’Bryant has been the librarian at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society for over 28 years. She says the group’s final recommendation should be reflective of all aspects of the local community. “I hope we can work effectively and constructively without unnecessary disagreement,” she says.
Jane Smith, who says she was “amazed” to learn she was selected out of the 74 people who applied to be on the commission, is eager to work with the group of “dignified, respectful people” who were also chosen, though she says she doesn’t expect them to agree on everything. Going in with a “clean slate,” Smith, who is a retired graphic designer, says, “I love doing history research and so I’m hoping that I can be of use that way.”
Don Gathers works as the front desk supervisor at the Graduate Hotel, is a member of UVA’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes executive committee and is on the deacon board at the First Baptist Church on West Main Street. Gathers says he applied to be on the commission to serve and hopefully unite the community.
“I think everyone wants basically the same things,” he says. “They want better lives for our children, freedom to come and go as they choose and to not have their rights infringed upon due to someone else’s rights.”
Gathers, a Richmond native, grew up around similar controversies surrounding the city’s historic Monument Avenue, where many Confederate leaders are honored.
“I’ve heard the outcries, I’ve heard the problems, the issues, the complaints, the explanations,” he says. “I think the best thing that we individually and collectively as a commission can do [in Charlottesville] is to listen before we formulate any opinion or take any stance one way or the other.”
But commissioner John Mason, a historian and UVA history professor who is descended on both sides of his family from Virginia slaves, has an idea of where he stands.
“I think my starting point is that the memorials are less about the men who are depicted and more about what they symbolize,” he says. “What they symbolize to me is not what they symbolized to the people who put them up.”
Erected as memorials to the “lost cause,” which Mason describes as the story white southerners told themselves to cope with defeat 30 years after the Civil War, he says, “Psychologically, they wanted to tell themselves about the glory of this lost cause. I think it’s a story of sacrifice, valor and dignity.”
He also notes that the Confederate memorials were built at the height of Jim Crow laws, when “things had never been worse for African-Americans.” Before City Council April 18, Mason said the memorials hide history instead of making it more visible.
Not reached were commission members Fields, Andrea Douglas and Melvin Burruss. All nine will meet for their first session June 16.
Correction: The original article incorrectly stated when the commission would first meet.