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Robert E. Lee statue comes under fire

Supporters, opponents gather in Lee Park Tuesday

<p>Going forward, the three options regarding the statue include leaving the park as it is, removing and possibly relocating the statue elsewhere or adding another memorial of late Civil Rights leader and University Prof. Emeritus Julian Bond to Lee Park.</p>

Going forward, the three options regarding the statue include leaving the park as it is, removing and possibly relocating the statue elsewhere or adding another memorial of late Civil Rights leader and University Prof. Emeritus Julian Bond to Lee Park.

Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville City Council vice chair, is calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Lee Park near the Downtown Mall.

Many residents have said they feel uncomfortable with the statue to the extent that they refuse to visit Lee Park while it is there, Bellamy said.

"General Lee has no historical ties to the city of Charlottesville," Bellamy said in an email statement. "Several current residents have stated that they believe the statue was used as a psychological tool to show dominance of the majority over the minority during this time period.”

The statue was donated to the city by Paul McIntire, a prominent Charlottesville-born businessman, in 1924.

John Mason, associate chair of the History department, said the symbolic nature of the statue and its message to the community are two of the major reasons it should be removed.

"The statue should be removed because it’s a symbol of racism, intolerance and white supremacy,” Mason said. “Robert E. Lee, as we know, commanded the Confederate armies in a war that the essential purpose of which was to preserve slavery and to preserve white supremacy."

Mason said the relationship between the statue — which has an unobstructed view on its four sides and sits in the middle of the park — and the viewer makes the viewer feel “small and insignificant.”

“That’s never going away,” Mason said. “So if we want a city that does not celebrate racism, does not celebrate the cause of the Confederacy, then we’re going to have to remove it."

The erection of the statue was a message to the black community to not expect Constitutional rights, equality or be respected in this town, Mason said.

“We’ve got this history there and I think it’s not a sentiment that most people in Charlottesville would approve of in 2016, and yet the message is still there,” Mason said. “The removal would be a symbol of Charlottesville’s commitment to equality, and it’s commitment to freedom. It would be a symbol of its rejection of everything that the Confederacy stood for.”

This is not the first time a City Council member has called for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. In 2012, City Council Member Kristin Szakos brought up a similar proposal and was met with much opposition.

"I brought it up in 2012 and we had a conversation about it. At that point it sort of unearthed a hornet's nest of people who were very adamant that it stay there," Szakos said. "At the time, my home address and phone number were posted on Aryan Nation websites all over the country, and so I got lots of nasty calls and a couple of death threats, and someone came into my driveway and plastered Confederate stickers on our cars."

Bellamy said recent legal developments have created an opportunity for local governments to make decisions about monuments.

In Oct. 2015, the Danville Circuit Court dismissed a case challenging the Danville City Council’s removal of the Confederate flag from the Sutherlin Mansion, holding that a 1998 law passed by the General Assembly shielding monuments from local management did not apply to monuments built before 1998.

Additionally, Gov. Terry McAuliffe recently vetoed HB 587, which would have restricted local governments from removing any war-related memorials.

McAuliffe said the bill would override the power of local authorities to make decisions about monuments

“There is a legitimate discussion going on in localities across the Commonwealth regarding whether to retain, remove or alter certain symbols of the Confederacy. These discussions are often difficult and complicated,” McAuliffe said in a press release. “They are unique to each community’s specific history and the specific monument or memorial being discussed.”

Bellamy said although there have been previous attempts to remove the statue, the city of Charlottesville did not previously have the authority to remove it.

"Now, based on the ruling in Danville and the governor’s veto, we — the city of Charlottesville — are able to make a decision as a local municipality," Bellamy said.

Given that Lee did not visit Charlottesville, Szakos said she hopes the Lee statue can be relocated to a more historically significant location, such as a Civil War battlefield or Lee’s birthplace, where it can be interpreted in a historical context.

Bellamy said he hopes a committee of citizens will rename the park and said the future of the park should be in the community’s hands.

Opponents of removing the statue have created a “Save the Robert E. Lee Statue” Facebook page. As of press time, nearly 7,000 people have liked the page, which has said in a post removing the statue will not fix the past.

“Learning from the past and not making the same mistakes is the only way to move forward,” the page writes. “This is accomplishing nothing and on the other hand inciting a greater divide.”

The Virginia Flaggers have also asked their supporters to contact City Council and express their displeasure, asking the council to “leave our monuments and memorials alone,” according to the organization’s website.

“Ask them if they really want to bring this kind of disunity and unrest to their city by disrespecting the history and heritage of its citizens,” their website reads.

Bellamy held a press conference at Lee Park March 22. Members of the community and organizations like the NAACP, the Virginia Pride Community Network and Virginia Flaggers shared their views.

Virginia Flaggers spokesperson Barry Isenhour said he felt the press conference was “disrespectful” and full of “total lies” about Robert E. Lee.

“From the beginning, the gentlemen from the NAACP talked about how ‘this is trash,’ and just the total lies that came out of these people,” Isenhour said.

The Albemarle-Charlottesville branch of the NAACP has called supporters to reach out to City Council members and ask that they remove “this offensive memorial to a man who led the Confederate cause to maintain the enslavement of our ancestors and those of our neighbors,” their website reads.

“Robert E. Lee never came to Charlottesville and was never a part of our local history,” their website reads. “This statue was erected for the sole purpose of celebrating the Confederacy and establishing the supremacy of its cause. It has no place in our community.”

Isenhour said one of his biggest points of contention with the removal of Lee’s statue is the narrative opponents of the statue have used to describe Lee.

“It was more of a press conference to denounce, and with lies that were said about Robert E. Lee himself about the southerners who support this, and it was very disappointing to hear this kind of speech,” Isenhour said.

Isenhour said Lee was not a racist figure.

“Teaching a child, a young lady at 15 years old, how he’s a racist and all this stuff is just unbelievable,” Isenhour said. “Particularly when you know the history of General Lee. He’s the furthest thing you can get from a racist.”

Isenhour referred to Zyahna Bryant, a local Charlottesville High School student who created a petition to “Change the name of Lee Park and Remove the Statue.” Bryant’s petition has gathered over 600 signatures.

Another petition has been created to “Keep the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park.” Over 2,000 people have currently signed the petition.

Some Charlottesville residents are proposing the city add a statue of the late Civil Rights leader and University Prof. Emeritus Julian Bond to Lee Park and change the name to Lee-Bond park.

One petition — entitled “Keep Lee's Statue, Add Julian Bond” — has over 470 signatures and is proposing to add a statue of Bond to “send a clear message that history is not to be forgotten, but progress is to be celebrated.”

According to the petition’s description, the contrast between Lee and Bond would show how far the United States has come with regards to civil rights.

“A memorial for Mr. Bond would serve as a unique contrast to whatever legacy General Lee left on racial tensions,” the petition reads. “This option may prove to be more cost effective, while unifying the community rather than dividing it.”

Charlottesville resident Edward Jones said while he disagrees with removing the statue, he thinks more could be done to make the park a welcoming and comfortable public space.

“I wouldn’t want to see the statue removed, but I do think we need to do better with the park,” Jones said. “I don’t think there’s anything in the park that really talks about who this man is or why he deserves to be honored.”

Jones said he could support the proposal to keep Lee’s statue in the park while adding a statue of Bond.

“I have seen a couple suggestions about adding to the park, maybe even adding Julian Bond who’s a very large … Civil Rights leader,” Jones said. “That would really shine the spotlight on what we need to learn and where we’ve come as a nation and as a community.”

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer is proposing City Council create a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Confederate Memorials” to evaluate the range of options for the Lee statue, such as moving it to a museum or adding other monuments to the park.

“I believe we must continually strive to heal the wounds created by slavery and racism in our community,” a statement from his office reads. “For me, this decision is not about one man or one statue. It’s about how we reckon today with the City’s shameful decisions, during the Jim Crow era, to celebrate the Confederacy in our public places.”

The City Council may address Signer’s proposal at its April 18 meeting.

The creator of the “Save the Robert E. Lee Statue” Facebook page declined to comment.