Just a couple days after the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were taken down, the city of Charlottesville began the process of removing the plinth bases on which the figures of the Confederate generals once stood.
While community members have rallied around city officials and commended them for their speedy and safe removal of the statues last weekend, some are frustrated that the city didn’t allow the bases to sit empty for a period before removing them.
“I’m very disappointed that they came down so quickly. I think this was a moment for people in Charlottesville to celebrate,” said John Edwin Mason.
Mason was a member of the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces that made recommendations to the City Council about the Lee and Jackson statues in 2016. He is a professor of African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia.
“I’m frankly astonished that nobody on council, and nobody at City Hall, seemed to understand that people wanted to celebrate this right and they didn’t want to simply celebrate the moment that the statues were taken off their pedestals and hauled away on a truck, but they wanted to actually let it sink in; savor this moment,” Mason said.
On Tuesday morning, the city released a statement saying removal of the statue bases would begin that day. Within a few hours, contractors from Team Henry Enterprises and Quarra Stone began removing pieces of the Lee statue’s base.
By Wednesday night, the base was completely dismantled. The contractors began dismantling the base of the Jackson statue Friday morning and now it is completely gone, as well.
City Manager Chip Boyles said the quick base removal was for logistical reasons.
“It was part of one contract with Team Henry to complete with minimal mobilization costs,” Boyles said in an email. Team Henry is the same team that removed the statues on July 10.
UVa removed the base of its George Rogers Clark statue even faster. Following the removal of the statue on July 11, contractors immediately went to work removing the outer pieces of the base. By the next night, the base was completely gone.
The city was very quiet about its plans to remove the statues last weekend, not announcing their removal until less than 24 hours prior and releasing emergency procurement statements.
“There are a lot of people who were thrilled that the statues were coming down, but they didn’t want to risk being there ... we’ve had so much violence and trauma associated with those statues …. many people said, ‘I’m just going to come down and look at where they used to be, I’m not going to risk whatever violence might occur when they’re taken down,’” Mason said. “So for those people to be denied the opportunity to see those empty platforms, to be able to revel in that moment … this was an occasion for the triumph of grassroots democracy over these symbols of white supremacy.”
Mason pointed out that when cities such as Richmond and New Orleans removed their statues, the bases stayed up a while to allow people to visit and take photos.
He said he was particularly disappointed that some local activists whose work was pivotal in the removal of the statues weren’t able to view the bases before they were removed.
“It wasn’t the city that took down the statues. It was local people organizing for years, putting pressure on the city to take down these statues … my hat is off to the people who were doing the hard work of mobilizing the community against the statues and against what they symbolize. I’m just so disappointed that we didn’t have this moment, to just, frankly, pat ourselves on the back for what we had done,” he said.
While Mason is disappointed the city moved so quickly to remove the bases, he said he didn’t think they should stay there long and that the city needs to move forward to reimagine those spaces.
“I certainly don’t think that those pedestals should have remained up there long .... In fact, their removal allows us now to think about what these spaces look like after we’ve gotten rid of them … Market Street can be just a beautiful public space, a beautiful living room for all the people of Charlottesville,” he said.
It is unclear when the City Council will take any further action regarding the statues or what will go in their place. This past week, the city announced that it remains open to additional expressions of interest from museums, battlefields and other entities interested in acquiring the Lee and Jackson statues. In early September, Boyles will conduct outreach with interested parties to further evaluate their intentions and resources.
No items related to the statues or their previous locations are listed on the agenda for Monday’s council meeting. It is possible the final disposition of statues won’t be discussed by the council until after the proposals are reviewed in September.
Jalane Schmidt, professor of race and religion at UVa and a member of the city’s Historic Resources Committee, recently said she is concerned that the city could keep the statues in storage too long without making a decision.
“What’s happened in Richmond and Baltimore and probably in other places, too, is the city takes down the statues and then they put them in storage. And they just sit there and it’s a sense of moral stasis. It’s like the city leaders have said, ‘we recognize we own these public spaces, they’re not expressing our values, they’re inimical to democratic values. They’re offensive, they’re also a magnet for haters, so they’re a public safety hazard, all these reasons, so we’re going to move them and put them into storage.’ And then they just sit there,” she said.
Mason said it is important to reckon with what the statues represented as the city moves forward.
“It’s hard for Americans to accept, but Americans really haven’t wrapped their minds around how horrible slavery was to experience. We don’t see the history of slavery, we don’t see the history of the South, we don’t see the history of America through the eyes of the enslaved ... in all of our teaching and all of our thinking and all of our iconography, we see through the eyes of the enslaver and we see through the eyes of the conqueror,” he said. “That’s a limited perspective and a perspective that cannot grasp and will not grasp some of the bad things, some of the horror, some of the atrocities. Slavery was a several hundred-year atrocity, a grotesque violation of human rights.”