The equestrian statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee that was the focal point of the deadly 2017 rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, will be melted down and turned into a new piece of public art by a local Black-led institution.
Charlottesville’s city council voted 4-0 on 7 December to give the bronze statue to Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC), the Washington Post reports. JSAAHC proposed melting the statue down, soliciting community input and proposals for a new monument, charging a jury with selecting a winning proposal and finally gifting the resulting artwork back to the city for public display in 2024. The proposal, dubbed “Swords into Plowshares”, is supported by the Open Society Foundations, the University of Virginia Democracy Initiative’s Memory Project and other groups.
“We believe our proposal will create an opportunity to move history forward and leave behind the false notion that such symbols are a fixed part of our community’s shared heritage,” JSAAHC’s executive director Andrea Douglas writes in the organisation’s proposal. “Using this statue’s melted bronze material in a new way will be a powerful symbol of social change.”
The 1,100lb statue, which depicts Lee atop his horse Traveler, was commissioned in 1917 from American sculptor Henry Shrady and, following his death, completed by Italian sculptor Leo Lentelli. It was dedicated in 1924. Following the June 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine Black people, decades-long campaigns to remove monuments to and names of Confederate figures from public spaces gained new urgency and momentum.
In early 2017 Charlottesville’s city council voted 3-2 in favour of removing the Lee statue, though its removal was blocked by a lawsuit and an injunction. In August of that year, white supremacists organised the “Unite the Right” rally in part to protest the statue’s removal. During that rally and the counterprotests, a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of protesters, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer. Shortly thereafter, the statue was shrouded in a black tarpaulin. On 10 July 2021, the Lee statue and another equestrian monument to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson were removed.
The six proposals reviewed by the city council included plans to recontextualise the Lee statue at historic sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, a handwritten proposal from a man in Texas who offered $10,000 to relocate it to his ranch, and a $100,000 proposal from nonprofit contemporary art space LAXART, in partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, to include the Lee and Jackson statues in a 2023 exhibition co-curated by the organisation’s director, Hamza Walker, and renowned contemporary artist Kara Walker. The winning proposal was the only one from a group based in Charlottesville.
“The Lee statue has been a singular source of harm to our community,” Douglas writes in the JSAAHC proposal. “Recontextualisation is not enough.”