This article is part of a three-part story on the battle over the General Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park.
When Tony Horwitz wrote his 1998 classic, Confederates in the Attic, he subtitled it Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Flash forward 18 years, and the legacy of the Civil War is still being debated as Charlottesville grapples with whether a statue of the 19th century commander of the Army of Northern Virginia belongs in a 21st century city park.
Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy led the charge to send General Robert E. Lee packing March 22 at a press conference in Lee Park, the name of which he also wants changed. He circulated the petition of Charlottesville High ninth-grader Zyahna Bryant, who wrote, “When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery.” He was joined in signing the petition by fellow councilor Kristin Szakos.
The event also drew those who don’t support removing the statue, most obviously the ones carrying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. But others who weren’t waving flags question the push to move Lee.
At press time, Bryant’s petition had 676 signatures. A petition was started to add a statue of civil rights activist Julian Bond to the park, and that one had 517 signatures. And out of 231 comments on C-VILLE Weekly’s Facebook page, 145 favor keeping the statue, while 50 say it should go. That tally is unscientific, but it does show that 150 years after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the issue deeply divides us today.
Bellamy says the reaction he’s gotten has been “overwhelmingly, extremely supportive,” with people thanking him for his courage.
For him, the issue first came up in 2013 when some residents expressed disappointment that he held a campaign event in Lee Park, where they said “things had happened to their grandparents” and where they would never set foot.
Bryant’s petition and Governor Terry McAuliffe’s March 10 veto of a bill that would have prevented the removal of war monuments made the timing seem right. “We felt this was something we should move forward,” says Bellamy.
He believes getting rid of the statue would do a lot for people psychologically and show Charlottesville is an inclusive city. “Just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean we should continue to honor it,” he says.
Four years ago, Szakos suggested the then-shocking notion that maybe it was time to get rid of the city’s Confederate monuments. This time around, she says, “The legal environment is now different and we can remove them.”
The year the Lee statue was unveiled —1924—was also the year Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which strengthened Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, she points out. Lynching was rampant, and statues of Confederates such as Lee “were part of an effort to remember the Lost Cause, to restore the past glory days of white Southerners,” says Szakos. “That is not what we stand for as a city.”
She also notes that Lee is not a Charlottesville native, nor is there any record of him ever being here. “This is not about whether Lee was a good man,” she says. His statue is a symbol that is “continuously hurting our neighbors.”
To those who say the issue is dividing the community, Szakos responds, “I don’t think this is creating divisiveness. It’s exposing divisiveness.”
Mike Farruggio, who ran for City Council in 2013, is offended by the rush to action in a city where everything else “is discussed and discussed and discussed.” Says Farruggio, “I think it’s very disrespectful and at the very least it could be put to a referendum.”
He’d like to see a plaque acknowledging the park’s history—that “Paul McIntire gave it for white people,” he says—while addressing the concerns of people in 2016.
Civil rights activist Eugene Williams, who headed the local NAACP in the 1950s, wants more commemoration of the city’s dark past, such as the slave auction at Court Square. Says Williams, “Both the slave auction block and General Robert E. Lee are history. I think City Council should be ashamed showing discrimination in dealing with history.”
UVA professor Ervin Jordan is a Civil War historian who’s written three books, including Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia. He’s also one of the few African-Americans in the country who specialize in Civil War history.
As a historian, Jordan says he’s not in favor of removing the statues. “Civilization should be constructive rather than destructive,” he says. “Charlottesville has enough space to erect new statues.”
He points to another consideration: “It costs a heck of a lot of money to move a statue. That Lee statue is pretty solid.” He estimates Charlottesville could spend several hundred thousand dollars to take it down, as well as spend money fighting lawsuits that he predicts Confederate groups will file.
The issue of how to handle distasteful symbols of the past “has troubled us for a long time,” says historian Ed Ayers, former University of Richmond president and former UVA dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Academics and historians agree: more history, not less.”
Interpreting the statues is not a substitute for having a conversation about them, he says. “We have to have an honest reckoning with what these statues are and where they come from.”
Those who defend them purely on the grounds of history don’t go far enough, he says. “All the history around us is constantly being revised,” and the Lee statue was put up four generations after the event it memorializes. “These statues were put up through a political process, and they’ll come down from a political process.”
The good news? “It’s a sign of civic health we’re having these debates,” says Ayers. “It’s what we’d expect a democracy to do, to wrestle with these topics.”
Correction: Mayor Mike Signer did not sign Bryant’s petition as originally reported.