Blue Ribbon Commission shares recommendations with community

Report suggests adding context to Lee and Jackson statues

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces met Thursday to present its preliminary report to the public and listen to feedback. The report, which has been a five month effort by the members of the commission, is designed to face the problems of Confederate and other racially or emotionally-charged memorials and public spaces.

After Commission Chair Don Gathers opened the meeting, Vice Chair John Mason explained what a recent vote regarding the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson near the Charlottesville Downtown Mall means for the community.

“We did not vote to retain the statues,” Mason said, describing a 6-3 vote the commission made on Nov. 1. “We voted to retain the statues on the condition that their meaning is transformed and their history is retold.”

The commission recommended keeping statues of both Lee and Jackson in Lee Park and Jackson Park, respectively, if historic context and interpretation can be added to the monuments.

Charlottesville has a long and complex history, and “the central theme of Charlottesville’s history from founding to desegregation has been white supremacy,” Mason said.

He said the commission was intent on telling the “complete and thorough history” of the city.

The meeting continued with a reading of the list of recommendations and then the floor was opened for comments and suggestions by the public.

Other recommendations for the city include renaming both parks, creating a memorial to recognize the Court Square slave auction block and providing funding for the proposed Vinegar Hill Park.

Of those who showed up, both to comment and observe, almost two-thirds were wearing matching t-shirts together to show opposition to the vote on Lee and Jackson Parks — white with “We stand with the 52%” on the front and “#CHANGETHENAME #MOVETHESTATUE” written on the back.

The “52%” refers to the fact that, at the time of emancipation, 52 percent of Charlottesville was enslaved. Those wearing the matching t-shirts stood in solidarity both with the African Americans who lived in Charlottesville during past eras of oppression and with each other, rising together where they sat whenever it was one of their turns to speak.

Of those opposed to the recontextualization of the statues, several shared similar thoughts to their position.

“The statues make public spaces unwelcome at best for many of us,” Charlottesville resident Lindsey Boudin said.

Others addressed a threat of white supremacy that they said they feel is still very real.

“Monuments like the ones down the road do not make white supremacists feel ashamed — they make them feel proud,” Charlottesville resident Andrew Muller said.

“There’s no way you can contextualize [these statues] and not traumatize black citizens every day,” Charlottesville resident Sarah McKenzie said.

Several opponents of the statues went up to the microphone and told the commission to “change your vote, move the statue.”

Those who wanted to see the statues recontextualized, rather than removed, all had a few key arguments to which they continually returned.

Ned Fry — nephew of original sculptor of the Lee statue, Henry Shrady, and an artist himself — argued that the statues are “historical works of art.”

Charlottesville resident Rachel Sitzer said the history of the city should not be erased.

“Theses statues are a representation of Charlottesville history whether we like it or not,” Sitzer said. “We cannot erase history and we should not try.”

After more than 50 members of the community had a chance to voice their opinions, commission member Rachel Lloyd, a representative for the city’s PLACE Design Task Force, reminded everyone present that City Council will be the body that makes any final decisions on the recommendations.

Although commission member Frank Dukes was appreciative of the number of concrete suggestions provided by the community, he said he was disappointed both that there was “so little response to other recommendation” laid out on the report and that “too many people just ignored what Mr. Mason said.”

Gathers said in an interview after the meeting that it is difficult to recommend the best decisions for the community in this matter.

“I’m not sure how you can adequately and respectfully contextualize 600 years of repression and mistreatment of a people,” Gathers said.

The next meeting with be held Nov. 28, tentatively at CitySpace.

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