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Removal of statues to cap a long history of local efforts
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Removal of statues to cap a long history of local efforts

Zyahna Bryant

Zyahna Bryant gives a speech during a "No Justice, No Peace" demonstration May 30, 2020, at Charlottesville's Washington Park. Bryant was a high school student when she led a petition calling for the city to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee.

After a century standing near the epicenter of Charlottesville commerce and government, the statuary glorifying two Confederate generals will be removed, just three days after a City Council vote to take them down.

“After petitioning for this statue to come down over five years ago, I still believe that they all must come down,” said Zyahna Bryant, who was a student at Charlottesville High School when she wrote the 2016 petition that ultimately led to the statues’ removal.

Bryant, now a third-year University of Virginia student majoring in sociology and a civil rights activist and organizer, said more symbols like the statues should be removed.

“We must not continue to offer platforms and dedicate space to honor white supremacy and the legacies of those who fought to uphold it,” she said in a statement. “This is a crucial first step in the right direction to tell a more historically accurate and complete story of this place and the people who call this place home.”

Former City Councilor Kristin Szakos, whose suggestion in 2012 that the statues could be removed created for her years of fallout that included threats and vitriol, said city residents have been ready for it for some time.

“I feel like I, and all of the other people who have been talking about this for 100 years, for us there is a sense of vindication,” she said Friday, on the eve of the planned removals.

“When I first moved here in 1995, the statues were really one of the things my family was concerned about. As a racially mixed family, is this a place where our family would be welcome? In a community that would continue to have such giant monuments to the Confederacy downtown?” she said. “Over the years, I’d talk about them, and found other people were concerned about them, too.”

It’s been a long and sometimes strange trip from erection of the Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues to their imminent removal.

It began with a man named Paul Goodloe McIntire, born in 1860, the son of a Confederate veteran. McIntire spent a semester at UVa before heading north to Chicago in 1880 and returning home a rich man.

Inspired by Andrew Carnegie and the Progressive era movement to beautify cities, McIntire began using his money to donate land for parks and to commission statuary.

On May 28, 1917, McIntire purchased the city block facing Market Street that featured the 1829 home of Charles S. Venable, a two-story brick dwelling surrounded by several smaller outbuildings and beautiful gardens containing fir, oak and weeping willow trees.

Then he tore it down.

He landscaped it and presented it to the city as a memorial to his parents and Lee, with the statue following seven years later.

In 1919, McIntire purchased the rundown and ramshackle property next to the Albemarle County Courthouse and deeded it to the city with the understanding that its only use would be for a park with no other monument except Jackson’s on the property.

The official dedication ceremonies for the statues were planned at McIntire’s request by the local chapters of the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In 2016, four years after Szakos started the conversation, Bryant’s petition to the City Council started a landslide of events. First, a city Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces recommended removal, relocation or contextualization of the statues. That led the council in February 2017 to vote for removal of both statues.

That vote in turn led to a lawsuit filed by supporters of the statues in March 2017. The suit eventually worked its way to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which ruled in the city’s favor just this past April.

Not long after the suit was filed, things got weird. On May 13, 2017, white nationalists used the city’s vote as a reason to hold a tiki torch protest in Lee Park. No one was hurt or arrested, but on July 8, members of the Ku Klux Klan from North Carolina cited the vote as reason for their downtown protest, which ended in tear gas to disperse counter-protesters who showed up.

Most notably, the statues served as the background for the deadly Unite the Right rally-turned-riot in August 2017 that resulted in the death of anti-racist counter-protester Heather Heyer, 32.

She was in a crowd of people when white supremacist James A. Fields Jr. drove his car into the marchers at a Downtown Mall crossing, injuring dozens. He was convicted of first-degree murder in Heyer’s death and is serving a life sentence.

The violence led the City Council to cover both statues with black fabric “in mourning for lives lost that fateful August weekend. In addition to Heyer, two state police pilots died when their helicopter crashed while they were here to monitor the rally.

With the exception of occasional uncovering of the statues, the fabric remained in place until Feb 26, 2018, when the Charlottesville Circuit Court ordered the coverings removed.

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly changed a law to allow cities to remove or cover statues, which previously was prohibited.

On June 7 of this year, the council voted unanimously to remove the statues and commence a 30-day period accepting offers for relocation and placement of the statues to any museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield.

On Wednesday, the council allocated up to $1 million for removal of the generals and a statue depicting Sacajawea, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark, also donated by McIntire.

By Friday, the city was prepping the area of the Lee and Jackson statues for their removal Saturday.

For Bryant and others involved in civil rights and social justice, the effort does not end with the statues’ removal.

“The work did not start here, and it will not end here,” Bryant said. “Today I am proud of our community for taking a stand, and I hope that this empowers young people everywhere to make their voices heard on the topics and issues that matter the most.”

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