Foundry Workers Melt Down Charlottesville’s Divisive Robert E. Lee Statue

Eventually, an artist will be chosen to transform the bronze bars into a public art installation

Face of Robert E. Lee statue in foundry
Foundry workers disassembled Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue before melting it down. Ézé Amos / Swords into Plowshares

The controversial bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that stood for nearly a century in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been melted down so that it may someday be transformed into a public art installation.

On Saturday, at a foundry in an undisclosed location in the American South, workers cut the infamous figure into small pieces, then fed those pieces into a 2,250-degree furnace. They poured the metal into molds for ingots, or rectangular bars, imprinted with the words “Swords Into Plowshares.” That’s the name of the project that will transform the divisive monument into a new piece of public art.

Foundry workers melting pieces of statue in furnace
Workers melted pieces of the statue in a 2,250-degree furnace. Ézé Amos / Swords into Plowshares

Only a small group of people, including a handful of journalists, was allowed to watch the melting. They were invited on the condition that they didn’t disclose the name or location of the foundry—or the identities of its workers—over fears of retaliation.

“The risk is being targeted by people of hate, having my business damaged, having threats to family and friends,” says the foundry’s owner, a Black man, to the Washington Post’s Teo Armus and Hadley Green.

Even so, the man added, “When you are approached with such an honor, especially to destroy hate, you have to do it.”

Foundry worker melts sword from Robert E. Lee statue
Only a small group of people, including a few journalists, was permitted to witness the melting ceremony on Saturday. Ézé Amos / Swords into Plowshares

One particularly poignant moment occurred when foundry workers removed the statue’s face from the rest of the head.

“A man in heat-resistant attire pulled down his gold-plated visor, turned on his plasma torch and sliced into the face of Robert E. Lee,” writes Erin Thompson, an art historian at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments, in a guest essay for the New York Times. “The hollow bronze head glowed green and purple as the flame burned through layers of patina and wax. Drops of molten red metal cascaded to the ground.”

The 21-foot-tall statue’s journey to this point was a long and complicated one. Commissioned in 1917 and installed in 1924, it loomed over a downtown Charlottesville park for decades. 

In 2017, amid a broader national debate over Confederate monuments, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville to protest the statue’s removal. During the “Unite the Right” rally, a man drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring many others

After years of legal battles, the statue finally came down in July 2021. The city donated it to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which has been responsible for it ever since and leads the Swords Into Plowshares project.

Foundry workers pour molten bronze into mold
Workers at an undisclosed foundry poured molten bronze from Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue into the mold of an ingot. Ézé Amos / Swords into Plowshares

Organizers had wanted to melt down the statue sooner, but they waited until a judge dismissed a lawsuit against the plan.

Because of the statue’s size, the melting process will take weeks. Once that work is finished, project organizers will move on to the next phase of their plan: choosing an artist who will transform the metal into something new.

“Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again,” said Reverend Isaac Collins, a Methodist minister in Charlottesville who spoke at the melting ceremony, per NPR’s Debbie Elliott. “We still have a lot of work to do, but this statue that has cost us so much, so much violence, so much hurt, so much bloodshed—it’s gone. And it’s never going to be put back together the way it was.”

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