Can the statue be moved? Not just a local issue

Defenders of the statue of General Robert E. Lee include a  great-nephew of sculptor Henry Shrady.
Rammelkamp Foto Defenders of the statue of General Robert E. Lee include a great-nephew of sculptor Henry Shrady. Rammelkamp Foto

The Charlottesville park bounded by Jefferson, North First, Market and North Second streets isn’t the only Lee Park under heavy scrutiny.

Last July, a group of folks in Dallas led a demonstration at Oak Lawn’s Lee Park to demand that a General Robert E. Lee statue be removed and the park renamed. Activists felt called to “un-dedicate” the statue and rededicate it to “the spirit of the abolitionist movement, raising the spirits of six genuine heroes of the Civil War era”—Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey, Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman and Senator Hiram Revels, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Though the acts of un-dedication and rededication had no legal recognition, another issue concerning Confederate war memorials could—and this one hits a bit closer to home.

A Virginia state law says localities can’t “disturb or interfere” with Confederate monuments, but a judge in Danville ruled that legal protection does not apply to structures erected before 1998. A Confederate flag flown since 1996 above the last capitol of the Confederacy at the city-owned Sutherlin Mansion was removed in August.

This decision has been appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

On March 10, Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed HB587—Republican Delegate Charles D. Poindexter’s bill—which would clarify conditions of the previous ruling in Danville and prohibit localities from removing any war memorials, including Civil War monuments, regardless of the date they were erected.

Though the Republican-controlled legislature passed the bill by a margin of 82 to 16 votes in the House, with local delegates Rob Bell, Matt Fariss and Steve Landes voting yay, and 21 to 17 in the Senate, Democratic Senator Creigh Deeds says he voted against it.

“Ultimately, localities are going to have to decide how they’re gong to commemorate the past,” Deeds says, adding that the discussion ought to be broader than just between 140 legislators at the General Assembly. “You can’t whitewash or change history,” he says. “You just have to learn from it.”

In Virginia, Deeds says the Civil War is commemorated in many different ways, with Confederate statues in every county, and high schools and roads named after Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

While he says he would be cautious about moving Charlottesville’s General Lee statue, he commends Mayor Mike Signer’s proposal of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Confederate Memorials to evaluate the community’s stance on the statue removal and renaming of Lee Park, explain the policy behind the effort, assess costs, explore options and develop a fundraising strategy.

In a statement proposing the task force, Signer alludes to dark chapters in Charlottesville’s past, including slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation and Vinegar Hill.

“We see one of those chapters every time we’re in Lee Park or Court Square, where, in the 1920s, city leaders elected to celebrate the Confederacy and, by extension, slavery, by placing large monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson,” Signer says.

Deeds hopes the commission will consist of a broad cross-section of community members.

“If [a commission] is appointed, it shouldn’t just be made up of people with a predetermined view of what should happen,” Deeds says. “To be a genuine commission, it needs to be made up of people who are willing to consider all sides to come up with the right approach.”

Signer says planning for the task force is still in the early stages and he is discussing options while researching examples of similar groups in places such as St. Louis and Baltimore. “My hope is that this will be a deliberative and hopeful process that truly engages the community in exploring how we can best change the narrative in Charlottesville,” he writes in an e-mail.

Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, says her department is working to help UVA grad Molly Ward, Virginia secretary of natural resources, develop a list of best practices for how communities should approach historic monuments. Governor McAuliffe requested a report from the group by December, Langan says, and they are in the early stages of electing people to serve on the commission.

“We’ll want geographic representation,” Langan says. “We’ll want people who have diverging points of view.”

Langan, like McAuliffe, believes conclusions should be reached by the community and not regulated by state law.

“My inclination is to view something like the [General Lee] sculpture in Charlottesville more as a work of art than a Confederate memorial,” she says.

In the National Register of Historic Places, Langan points out that documentation for the monument at Lee Park has little to say about the Civil War. It emphasizes the high artistic value of the sculpture, the history of its design and its production.

Paul Goodloe McIntire, who gifted Lee Park to the city in 1918, signed a deed June 14 of that year that said he desired “to erect thereon a statue of General Robert E. Lee and to present said property to the City of Charlottesville, Va. as a memorial to his parents, the late George M. McIntire and Catherine A. McIntire.”

Although some may question whether the city is able to remove the statue or rename the park that McIntire gifted, the deed says, “This conveyance is made upon condition that the said property be held and used in perpetuity by said city as a public park, and that no buildings be erected thereon, but the authorities of said city shall at all times have the right and power to control, regulate and restrict the use of said property.”

So can the statue be moved? Maybe.