Several hundred people gathered this weekend in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, to witness the removal of a controversial memorial of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The bronze statue, erected in 1917, became a flashpoint of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017 after a petition was launched to remove it, prompting white nationalists to storm Charlottesville in a bid to protect the work and other Confederate memorials.
The petition to remove the statue was launched by the activist Zyahna Bryant in 2016, after which the city established an advisory board to deal with memorials in public spaces. Several local residents had previously sued to prevent the statues from coming down, arguing that a state law prohibited the removal of Confederate war memorials. The law was not applicable to statues erected before 1997 and the lawsuit was overturned.
Bryant says the removal of the Lee statue is historic but “just the tip of the iceberg—there’s still so much work left to do to address affordable housing and policing and the wealth gap”, in Virginia and nationwide.
Charlottesville officials also removed a statue of the Confederate general Thomas Stonewall Jackson and a statue depicting Sacagawea and the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. However, the statues's plinths remain in place and will be removed at a later date. The city council has allocated $1m for the removal and storage of the statues.
Since the Black Lives Matter protests began in June last year, nearly 200 memorials seen to enshrine white supremacy have been toppled by protestors or removed by city officials, including more than 70 in the state of Virginia.
“Our community battles with the falsities that have created and preserve whiteness as supreme,” said Charlottesville's mayor, Nikuyah Walker. “Taking down these statues brings us one small step closer to a more perfect union.”
The city is asking museums and historical societies to solicit interest in acquiring the statues for relocation and placement. According to a statement, ten responses are pending review, including proposals from six out-of-state institutions and four in-state.