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UVa's Memory Project premieres monuments doc, celebrates Lee's absence

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Truth under the stars

An audience sits on lawn chairs and blankets on Saturday to watch a documentary recounting the history of Charlottesville’s Confederate statues and the times during which they were erected.

More than five years after torch-wielding protesters gathered around the Robert E. Lee statue that once stood at Market Street Park, bringing the statue removal debate to its boiling point, UVa’s Memory Project is redefining the space and rectifying its history.

The Memory Project at UVA’s Democracy Initiative premiered its 30-minute documentary “Unveiling: The Origin of Charlottesville Monuments,” at Market Street Park, formerly Lee Park, on Saturday evening. Attendees occupied Market Place park on blankets and lawn chairs and Memory Project representatives served popcorn at sunset.

“Aren’t you glad a murderous traitor isn’t here to look down on us?” said Jalane Schmidt, executive producer and director of the Memory Project, associate professor of race and religion at the University of Virginia and host for the evening.

The documentary-style film presented archive photos and articles — including some published by The Daily Progress dating back to the 19th century—in addition to the input of five Black Charlottesville residents.

Schmidt drew the timeline of events from the time each statue of the defeated Confederate generals went up around the city and the significance of their positions in public spaces.

Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, emphasized the impact of violent white opposition to Black progress throughout history and co-hosted the question and answer session after the premiere.

Zyahna Bryant, the community activist and current UVa student who originated the petition to remove Confederate statues from Charlottesville’s public parks, recounted her journey from starting the petition in 2016 to statue removal in 2021 and the significance of the fight for the Black community.

Former vice-mayor Wes Bellamy, who was on the city council and worked with Bryant when she first presented the concept of the petition, discussed the support he was able to offer and the victory of reclaiming public spaces.

Founding leader of the Descendants of Enslaved Communities and employee in the Department of Surgery at UVa DeTeasa Gathers shared her personal experience with generational trauma associated with Confederate statues as a lifelong Charlottesville resident.

“My grandmother told me ‘we don’t go there,’” Gathers said. “She grabbed my arm and the tone of her voice told me that was not a place for us; I wasn’t supposed to go there.”

Schmidt and Douglas launched the Marked by These Monuments tours in 2018. The duo guided large groups through Downtown Charlottesville with a map of all of the Confederate Monuments in the area while sharing their history and the memory of those who erected the statues.

In addition to the Lee statue, stops included the Stonewall Jackson and Johnny Reb monuments and the slave auction block marker on Park Street. Schmidt and Douglas led their final tour on Memorial Day in 2021, but a virtual guide experience is available on the Marked by these Monuments website.

“When we did the tours, there was an ominous feeling in those spaces where the statues stood,” Schmidt said. For people in marginalized communities, it sent a clear message that said ‘you shouldn’t be here, you don’t belong.”

After more than a century of looking down on the Downtown Mall, Black business owner Devon Henry and his construction team removed the Lee and Jackson statues on July 9, 2021.

The audience at Market Street Park cheered along with the crowd in the film footage from the day Charlottesville residents, supporters from surrounding counties and millions around the world tuned in to watch Lee fall.

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