Charlottesville City Council voted on Feb. 6 to remove and subsequently relocate the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Lee Park. Last Monday, two organizations and 11 community members filed a lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville over the decision. While the Council's decision to move the statue is justified, it also sets a dangerous precedent for erasing darker aspects of Charlottesville’s history.
The removal and relocation of the Lee statue seems to go directly against Virginia state law, which states: “If such [memorials for war veterans] are erected it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.” Precedent for the application of this law was set in June 2015, when Loudoun County officials determined they could not remove a statue of Confederate soldiers. Removing and relocating Confederate memorials constitutes the type of disturbance and interference referenced in the statute.
At a news conference, Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy mentioned that African Americans had been spat upon for simply being in the park. Additionally, Confederate sympathizers and white nationalists have made the statue a symbol of their views and beliefs. The statue’s glorification of the Confederacy has inflicted clear harm on our community. However, given both the statue’s historical value and the high costs associated with relentless litigation and relocation, removing the monument from the park inefficiently addresses the issue.
Historical context is important for monuments. Given that the Lee statue only tells one side of the story, it is inappropriate to have it serve as one of the few reminders of our community’s Civil War history. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegally interfering with the statue, City Council should invest resources to honor Civil War figures whose history unfolded in Charlottesville — especially the African Americans, both enslaved and free, who at the time made up a majority of the town’s population. The Council also needs to devote more of its efforts to acknowledging the full historical context of the monument and the park.
We abhor the racism of our country’s past. Although this is certainly included in the Lee statue’s history and in its meaning to many today, hiding and ignoring such remnants of the past would fix nothing. Moreover, removal of the Lee statue would set grounds for how we handle controversial history in the future. It is crucial to consider the historical context of any Confederate memorial, and ruling in favor of the decision to remove and relocate the Lee statue would only prevent the Charlottesville community from doing so.