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Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to transform Robert E. Lee statue into public art

The Lee statue was removed last July following years of advocacy

<p>Individuals and organizations then had until Oct. 15 to submit formal proposals containing plans for the statues. City Council held the power to choose amongst the proposals or continue holding the statues in storage.</p>

Individuals and organizations then had until Oct. 15 to submit formal proposals containing plans for the statues. City Council held the power to choose amongst the proposals or continue holding the statues in storage.

Early Tuesday morning, Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously to donate the contentious statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. JSAAHC plans to melt the bronze statue into metal blocks and transform the metal into a new public work of art. 

In early July, City Council removed the Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Sacagawea statues from their stone bases. Calls for the Lee statue’s removal first began in 2016, when third-year College student Zyahna Bryant — then a high school student — circulated a petition calling for the Lee statue’s removal. City Council to vote in favor of removal later that year, which became the focus of national attention when white supremacist groups and inviduals flocked to Charlotttesvilel for the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017.

After the removal, the statues were moved into a secure undisclosed storage facility. Individuals and organizations then had until Oct. 15 to submit formal proposals containing plans for the statues. City Council held the power to choose amongst the proposals or continue holding the statues in storage.

JSAAHC was the only local organization to submit a proposal, titled “Swords into Plowshares.” Per the Charlottesville Tomorrow, JSAAHC Executive Director Andrea Douglas said priority input will be given to descendants of those enslaved in neighboring communities, as was done during the construction of the University’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. 

In a letter of support for JSAAHC’s proposal, Bertha French and DeTeasa Gathers, co-chairs of Descendants of Enslaved Communities at U.Va., wrote that melting the Lee statue and transforming it into public art will more correctly reflect the community’s values.

“The community engagement process and artistic transformation it proposes will pay special attention to voices in the African American community, which were systematically excluded from the conversation about public space when the statue was erected in 1924,” French and Gathers said. “The JSAAHC has the credibility and experience to carry this out.”

A fundraiser for the project was set up shortly following Council’s vote Tuesday morning and has already raised over $21,000. The fundraiser description says the organization’s plan involves extensive community input to transform the melted statue into a piece of public art for installation at a yet-to-be-determined public space. 

“The artistic transformation will be informed by a six-month community engagement process where residents of Charlottesville can participate in forums to help determine how the social value of inclusion can be represented through art and public space,” the fundraiser description reads. “We will then commission an artist of national significance to work with our community to design and create new bronze sculptural art that we will display publicly in Charlottesville by 2026.”

JSAAHC is leading a group of local organizations and initiatives to execute the “Swords into Plowshares” project, including the Democracy Initiative’s Memory Project and Virginia Humanities. The proposal has also garnered support from the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Charlottesville Clergy Collective and Delegate Sally Hudson. 

According to JSAAHC’s fundraiser, the estimated cost for the first stage of the process will be $1.1 million. This funding will cover the statue’s transportation, the process of transforming the statue into metal blocks, the six-month community engagement process, the artist’s commission and a salaried project manager position at the JSAAHC to oversee the project. 

City Council will decide what to do about the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statue and the statue of Sacagawea, Meriwhether Lewis and William Clark at its Dec. 20 meeting.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker, councilors Heather Hill and Michael Payne, and various community members voiced support during the Dec. 6 meeting for the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center’s proposal for the Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark statue. This proposal would “recontextualiz[e] the statue with what it calls an accurate, responsible telling of the expedition story and Sacagawea’s role in it,” according to Charlottesville Tomorrow. 

Of the five proposals for the Jackson statue, the only one discussed Dec. 6 was one from LAXART, a museum in Los Angeles. However, LAXART’s proposal would have given the museum the pair of Jackson and Lee statues, which is no longer feasible.

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