Beyond the statues: Councilor’s book explores Confederate monument backlash

City Councilor Wes Bellamy spoke candidly about Confederate statues, the controversy over his old tweets, and the effect his career has had on his family. Photo by Mina Pirasteh City Councilor Wes Bellamy spoke candidly about Confederate statues, the controversy over his old tweets, and the effect his career has had on his family. Photo by Mina Pirasteh

By Jonathan Haynes

City Councilor Wes Bellamy sat down for a revelatory interview at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center January 10 to promote his new book, Monumental: It Was Never About a Statue.

The title alludes to the former vice-mayor’s push to remove Confederate monuments from Charlottesville parks, and the racist backlash it inspired, which culminated in the August 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally. “If it’s just about the statues, people aren’t going to kill you,” he said. “People don’t drive a car into a group of people over the removal of a statue.”

Andrea Copeland-Whitsett, director of member education services for the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce, conducted the interview. She began by addressing the derogatory remarks Bellamy had tweeted about women, white people, and the LGBTQ community between 2009 and 2014, and the outrage that erupted when the tweets resurfaced in November 2016.

Bellamy called the tweets “something evil-inspired,” and described his personal experience of the scandal for the first time. He was spending Thanksgiving in Atlanta with his wife when he got a call from a blocked number. According to Bellamy, the voice said, “Hey n—-r, we’re going to break you down. This is Trump’s country now.” Then he received another call from his office letting him know that his old tweets had been sent to City Council and local press.

He could hardly believe they were from his account. “I was so far past that [kind of attitude],” he said.

Come Monday, “a tsunami hit.” Friends and allies turned their backs on him. Then-governor Terry McAuliffe publicly denounced him. He was devastated. Though he remained on City Council, he resigned from his positions at Albemarle High School and on the Virginia Board of Education.

Ultimately, he said, the experience was humbling. “I used to walk around thinking I was a hero. It was a very necessary lesson to me that I am not.”

Bellamy’s tweets were dug up by Jason Kessler, who organized the Unite the Right rally the following year.

The movement to remove the city’s Confederate monuments is often presented as Bellamy’s idea. But he gives credit to Mayor Nikuyah Walker and local high school activist Zyahna Bryant, who drafted the original petition asking City Council to remove the statues and rename Lee Park.

Bryant contacted him after McAuliffe vetoed a bill that would protect Confederate monuments in March 2016. “You can remove the statue,” she told him.

He teamed up with then-councilor Kristin Szakos, who had been publicly questioning the presence of Confederate monuments, and calling on the city to end its celebration of Lee-Jackson Day.

When Bellamy and Szakos held a press conference, he began to fear for his safety. Staring down “a sea of individuals” bearing Confederate flags and shouting, “I was concerned someone was going to shoot me,” he said. Afterwards, Bellamy began receiving death threats on a daily basis, and “would hear loud beats on the back window” of his home after midnight.

It wasn’t about the statue, he said. “People believed we were going to change what was theirs, that this is their community.”

Though his tenure in office has been tumultuous, Bellamy professed an unremitting love for Charlottesville, praising local residents for coming together to confront racial inequities. There are other cities that have the same issues, he said, “but we’re really willing to talk about it.”