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Four Years After Deadly Rally, Charlottesville Removes Two Confederate Monuments

statue being removed
Workers prepare to remove the monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Saturday, July 10, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va. The removal of the Lee statue follows years of contention, community anguish and legal fights. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)

The city of Charlottesville, Va., removed two Confederate statues on Saturday, toppling symbols that were at the center of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017.

The statues will remain on city property until the city council decides what to do with them. Ten groups have expressed interest in the statues, according to a statement from the city. 

The removals were set in motion by a 2016 petition started by then high school student Zyahna Bryant, who was on hand to watch Lee come down. Bryant said she wanted to celebrate the occasion without declaring victory.

“The systemic work is much longer and it’s gonna take much more work and that’s what has to come after this,” Bryant. “Otherwise it’s just an empty, symbolic gesture.”

Charlottesville City Council voted to take the statues down early in 2017, but that action was delayed by a legal challenge that was ultimately rejected by the Virginia Supreme Court this April.

The statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson -- and threats to remove them -- served as a rallying cry for the far right in the summer of 2017. The tension spilled into violence in the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right Rally as neo-Nazis clashed with counter protesters. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man drove into a crowd of pedestrians. Dozens of others were injured in that attack and other violence.

The scene Saturday was comparatively tranquil. A few hundred people sipped coffee and took selfies as the statues came down. The city closed nearby streets, and the work was over before noon. 

Mayor Nikuya Walker, the first Black woman to serve as Charlottesville’s mayor, says the statues embodied a racist ideology that remains present.

“Today the statues come down,” she said in remarks before work began. “And we’re one small step closer to a more perfect union.” 

Another, taller statue of Lee remains standing in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, awaiting a final judgment in a separate legal challenge. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered the state-owned statue removed as soon as the case is resolved. Four other Confederate statues that lined the city’s iconic Monument Avenue were taken down last summer amid racial justice protests. 

Charlottesville’s statues of Lee and Jackson were erected in the early 1920s with large ceremonies that included Confederate veteran reunions, parades and balls. At one event during the 1921 unveiling of the Jackson statue, children formed a living Confederate flag on the lawn of a school down the road from Vinegar Hill, a prominent Black neighborhood. The Jackson statue was placed on land that had once been another prosperous Black neighborhood. 

Their erection coincided with a push across the South to valorize the Confederacy and suppress Black communities, according to Sterling Howell, programs coordinator with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. 

“This was at the height of Jim Crow segregation, at the height of lynchings in American history,” he said. “There was a clear statement that they weren't welcome.”