Not black and white: Lee statue evokes deep feelings on racial history

More than 100 people told the Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces what they thought about the Robert E. Lee statue, and more.
Photo Eze Amos More than 100 people told the Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces what they thought about the Robert E. Lee statue, and more. Photo Eze Amos

In its first listening session July 28, the City Council-appointed Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces heard from well over 100 citizens, who packed the African American Heritage Center at the Jefferson School to talk about Charlottesville’s painful history.

Their responses weren’t always clear-cut as far as the statue of Robert E. Lee was concerned, the call for the removal of which earlier this year led to the creation of the commission. Of the 38 speakers, 18 said they wanted to keep the statue, eight wanted it removed, some said they didn’t care and others wanted more acknowledgment of Charlottesville’s stories that haven’t been told.

“It looks like my whole history is in this room,” said Mary Carey, 70, who attended the segregated Jefferson School. She recalled going as a child to the McIntire Library, which borders Lee Park, and “having to sit on the edge while the white kids ran all around.”

Carey said she wanted people educated about Charlottesville history, and that she could live with the statue. “Do what you want,” she said. “I’ve already been humiliated by it when I was a little girl.”

Rose Hill resident Nancy Carpenter also didn’t care whether the statue stays or goes, but she did want to start the healing. “We really need to rip away the Band-Aid and move forward,” she said.

Civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel said the Civil War monuments are not accidents. “They’re a continuum of oppression of African-American people.” He said he wanted to know why the city doesn’t have blue ribbon commissions to talk about why 27 percent of the population is poor and black, why housing is segregated and why police stop blacks more than whites.

Several speakers were dismayed that the slave auction in Court Square was only commemorated by a small plaque on the ground. Others were concerned about the cost of removing the statues, and suggested the money could be better spent on education.

And still others were bothered about the message of removing the statues. Raymond Tindel, former registrar at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, noted ISIS and the Taliban’s destruction of antiquities.

“I found this horrible,” he said. “I did not expect to find the same situation here when I moved to Albemarle” because the area had a reputation of tolerance and inclusiveness. “You can’t gain a reputation for tolerance if you only tolerate the things you like,” he said. “Learn from it.”

“Do you know why the statue of Robert E. Lee is here?” asked Rob Elliott, who was wearing a cap with a Confederate flag emblem.

“To support white supremacy,” a woman’s voice interjected from the audience.

Elliott said Lee stopped Union General Ulysses Grant from coming from the west to burn Charlottesville, and added, “All lives matter. We need to let it go.”

Lewis Martin, who has accused City Council of stacking the commission with those in favor of removing the statue, took another tack, and pointed out that the statues of Confederate and Union soldiers erected by the generation after the Civil War bear striking similarities, and not just because they all came from the same company in Massachusetts.

People in the north also were putting up statues to honor their ancestors, he said. “Whether in Court Square or Zanesville, Ohio, the same words are there: honor, bravery. That’s why I don’t believe the statues in Lee Park were put up to oppress.”

The Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces heard from citizens July 28 at the Jefferson School, itself a reminder of Charlottesville’s segregated past. Photo Eze Amos
The Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces heard from citizens July 28 at the Jefferson School, itself a reminder of Charlottesville’s segregated past. Photo Eze Amos

The commission heard from 27 speakers in the first hour of the gathering, then broke the attendees into eight smaller groups for their ideas on four topics: what stories about Charlottesville should be told, what places need to be memorialized and what the statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Court Square mean to individuals and what should be done about them.

For about an hour, the smaller groups rotated between topics as facilitators asked what they thought and recorders wrote their answers on large flip boards. City staff will compile the information on spreadsheets to see how many times an issue is mentioned, said commission chair Don Gathers.

“Once we put all of that together, we can make a reasonable judgment on the pulse of the city,” he said.

In between listening to comments from the smaller groups, commissioner Margaret O’Bryant, who is also librarian at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, said, “I’m impressed by the ingenuity of ideas for additional memorials and interpretations. A lot of people have a lot of good ideas.”

And for many, it seemed an opportunity to publicly talk about a painful topic. Dale McDonald compared Lee to Benedict Arnold. “He was a traitor to his country,” he said. “I would be glad to remove it myself.”

Uriah Fields, who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, agreed and said he would like to posthumously put Lee on trial. “I am for removing that statue because it represents slavery,” he said.

But for Charlottesville native Joan Burton, who says her ancestors were owned by Peter Jefferson and John Wayles and inherited by Thomas and Martha Jefferson, the history is important. “Although I’m disturbed by the statues, I don’t want them taken down,” she said. “Although I may have been resentful of Monticello, I want them to tell the story of the people who were there.”