Like its idea of moving Charlottesville’s statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the city could face legal challenges against its efforts to alter two public parks and add context to the legacy of the Confederacy and its military officers.
As the City Council looks to begin that process Monday by voting on new names for the two parks, the attorneys representing a cadre of Confederate descendants and history buffs who wish to protect the statues say it would be illegal for the city to rename the parks or add new memorials there.
A team of about five lawyers is representing local attorney Jock Yellott, executive director of The Monument Fund; the Virginia Division Sons of Confederate Veterans; and a host of others in a lawsuit against the city over its intention to remove the Lee statue.
“That would be the lawyers’ position,” Yellott said when asked whether he thinks renaming the parks and building new monuments in those parks is illegal.
As observers have judged that a six-month injunction issued to prevent the removal of the Lee statue will end with the court ruling that moving the statue is illegal based on state law, the city’s plans to redesign Lee and Jackson parks and build a memorial to enslaved people could be challenged, as well.
In February, after the council voted 3-2 to remove the Lee statue, Councilor Kathy Galvin introduced a resolution that earmarked $1 million to redesign the parks and build a new memorial in Jackson Park to commemorate the city’s enslaved population.
The council unanimously approved the resolution.
“My resolution is the only one the City Council can act upon to challenge that Lost Cause narrative” of the Confederacy, she said in an interview last week.
“I’m grateful the judge didn’t grant an injunction against the other elements that the plaintiffs wanted to prevent.”
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Yellott said the legal team representing him and the other plaintiffs thinks renaming the parks would be illegal.
The attorneys say the Jackson Park name in particular cannot be changed because the deed in which the park land was granted to the city specifically states that it must be named Jackson Park.
According to the Dec. 24, 1918, deed, local philanthropist Paul G. McIntire “requested that said property be conveyed” to Charlottesville and that “it be known as ‘Jackson Park.’”
McIntire also granted the land for Lee Park and gifted to the city the park’s namesake statue, dedicating it to his parents. The deed for that gift, however, does not specifically request for that property to be known as Lee Park.
Yellott said he thinks the argument against renaming has a bit more merit for Jackson Park than for Lee Park.
“It’s a little fuzzier about the name of Lee Park,” he said.
Although the court ruled it would not issue an injunction against the city from renaming the parks — because such a decision could be overturned if it’s found later to be illegal to do so — Yellott said lead legal counselor Ralph Main told him they have, “not given up on that issue at all.”
As for building a new monument in Jackson Park, Charles Weber, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, said he thinks the city should look to build new monuments elsewhere.
As for Yellott, he said: “I can’t speak to that because you’re asking me to give a legal opinion.”
Last month in court, attorneys for the plaintiffs said they wanted to maintain the status quo in the two parks. They also said that “transforming” the parks, as the city has resolved to do, could lead to a violation of the state law that prohibits localities from “disturbing” or “interfering with” memorials for war veterans.
“My view is that better signs are something everyone agrees on — how you tell the story better is something we disagree about,” Yellott said.
“Honestly, I don’t think the court wants to be the one making case-by-case decisions on what is allowed and what isn’t,” he added.
“We need to find a better process.”
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Although Galvin and Mayor Mike Signer voted against removing the statue of Lee, both are in agreement with the other councilors that something must be done to change the status quo in the parks.
The council asked city staff last month to expedite the process for retaining a landscape architecture firm to produce new design concept plans for the two parks. The city is expected to choose a firm by early fall.
“It’s important we address the narrative of the Jim Crow period,” Galvin said. “Acting on that now is going to demonstrate to the community that we are serious and we heard them.”
Beyond the formal planning process to redesign the parks, the council also agreed to hold a design competition to solicit ideas for a new monument in Jackson Park.
The February resolution also states that the city will replace the current plaque recognizing the former slave auction block near the Albemarle County Courthouse and identify and acknowledge the site of the historic Freedmen’s Bureau in the area.
In May, at the request of members of last year’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, the council indicated it would support accepting a marker from the future Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
That project is being organized by the Equal Justice Initiative. The memorial in Montgomery is expected to open next year. The organization is working with communities across the country to develop markers that would recognize “racial terror lynchings” that took place in the post-antebellum and Jim Crow periods.
The marker in the Charlottesville area would recognize John Henry James, an African-American man who was lynched in Albemarle in 1898 after being accused of assaulting a woman.
The council directed staff members to research whether there were any other similar lynchings that took place during that period.
The city has yet to discuss where the lynching marker might go, but Jackson and Lee parks have been considered as potential locations.
“I want to leave that discussion open,” Galvin said when asked about a possible site for the marker.
“It’d be good to do a little more research on how to address this,” she said. “That’s something we should do right away, but I think we should do a city-county memorial because it involves both jurisdictions.”