Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Statue Will Be Melted Down, Transformed Into New Art
Officials in the Virginia city approved a bold plan for the future of the Confederate monument
Last summer, Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd spurred communities across the globe to remove or dismantle the racist public art decorating their government halls, museums, parks and city squares. Many of these monuments were tucked away in storage facilities. Others, such as the American Museum of Natural History’s Theodore Roosevelt statue and the toppled bronze likeness of an enslaver in Bristol, England, found new homes in museums.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, lawmakers decided to transform one torn-down monument entirely, reports Teo Armus for the Washington Post. Instead of storing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, officials will melt down the 1,100-pound bronze monument into metal ingots—raw material that can then be used to create new art.
City council members approved the proposal unanimously on Tuesday morning, reports Ginny Bixby for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Put forth by the local Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC), the plan was one of six considered by lawmakers during months of deliberation.
According to JSAAHC’s proposal, organizers plan to hold community listening sessions in barbershops, places of worship, schools and other businesses throughout Charlottesville. With community input, the “Swords Into Plowshares” team hopes to select an artist or artists to design a new public artwork by 2024.
The museum has already raised more than half of the $1.1 million required to bring its project to fruition and is continuing to fundraise online. Proceeds will be used to donate the transformed statue back to the city, where it will go on display by 2026.
JSAAHC executive director Andrea Douglas tells the Post that the project “will allow Charlottesville to contend with its racist past.”
She adds, “It really is about taking something that had been harmful and transforming it into something that is representative of the city’s values today.”
In a JSAAHC video describing the proposal, the director says, “I think this project offers a road map for communities who are also grappling with what to do with their statues.”
The statue of Lee on horseback has sat in storage since July, when it was removed from Market Street Park by city officials. The work was installed in 1924 as one of hundreds of similar statues commissioned by white authorities across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Particularly in the Jim Crow South, these Confederate monuments paid “homage to a slave-owning society and [served] as blunt assertions of dominance over” Black Americans, wrote Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler for Smithsonian magazine in 2018.
Controversy over the Charlottesville statue reignited in 2017, when it was became a “focal point” of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally, as Armus reported for the Washington Post in July.
Responding to calls for the statue’s removal, white supremacist groups organized a protest that quickly turned violent. A man drove his car through a crowd of counter-protesters during the two-day-long demonstrations, injuring dozens of people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Council members will likely reconvene on December 20 to decide the fates of two additional statues removed in July. One depicts Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, while the other portrays explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and Lemhi Shoshone interpreter Sacajawea, per the Daily Progress.
According to Monument Lab’s National Monuments Audit, a recent survey of more than 48,000 statues, plaques, parks and obelisks across the country, Lee is the sixth-most represented historical figure in the American commemorative landscape. As a general for the Confederacy, Lee led thousands to their deaths in a war waged in the name of preserving slavery. He personally enslaved multiple people and, as executor of his father-in-law’s estate, oversaw almost 200 enslaved people on three Virginia plantations.
Elsewhere in Virginia, authorities in the state capital of Richmond recently dismantled a separate equestrian statue of Lee. Standing 21 feet tall and weighing nearly 12 tons, the monument was the largest Confederate sculpture in the United States prior to its removal in September.
Historian Jalane Schmidt, director of the University of Virginia’s Memory Project, worked with JSAAHC to develop the proposal. Her organization develops public engagement around issues of public memory as they relate to the Charlottesville rally.
In the JSAAHC video, Schmidt notes that “Swords Into Plowshares" will offer locals the opportunity to heal from or reckon with the events of 2017 and beyond.
“Our community will confront white supremacy with creativity,” the scholar adds. “Beauty will heal the ugliness of the past.”