A petition started by an Albemarle County resident to remove a monument to Confederate soldiers outside the county courthouse is gaining traction.
Activist Matthew Christensen authored the petition to urge the county Board of Supervisors to vote to remove the statue as soon as possible.
Some people Christensen has spoken to have told him that the statue should be left alone to preserve the past and impart lessons for the future, he said.
“The reality is that the history we’re learning is not accurate and it’s not complete and we can’t learn from it correctly if it’s not what actually happened,” he said. “We need to learn what happened in the first place and struggle with the darkness of it and the damage that was done so that we can learn from it.”
About 450 people had signed the petition by Saturday afternoon.
The monument, a bronze, life-size Confederate soldier in uniform, sits in front of the Albemarle Courthouse on county land that was never annexed by the city, facing south toward East Jefferson Street. It was erected in 1909 and paid for by the county, the city and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
A state law adopted in 1950 authorizes localities to build and permit monuments to veterans of any war or major conflict, but it also says that 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.”
On Saturday, more than 30 community members, including county Supervisors Ned Gallaway, Diantha McKeel and Rick Randolph, took a guided tour of Court Square in Downtown Charlottesville. The tour, led by Jalane Schmidt, a local activist and University of Virginia professor, and Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, began at the slave auction block plaque and ended in Market Street Park.
Schmidt said the Albemarle statue was meant to send out a message about who has ownership over public space.
“This is the ‘you will not replace us’ of 1909, we’ve heard those guys coming around here chanting this, the paranoia about being overwhelmed demographically, these young alt-right haters today,” she said.
Douglas said that by 1890, the African American community in Charlottesville was starting to really coalesce, gain monetary power and buy property in the area. The community was also politically active, she said.
“Why do you need to assert a modicum of power within this particular moment in time?,” she said. “You’ve got to read these within the history of the space as well. They are not pure, benign placements and they shouldn’t be seen in that way.”
The tour also took community members to Court Square Park and discussed the history of the Stonewall Jackson statue and the park, and to the Robert E. Lee statue.
Charlottesville is currently facing a lawsuit over its intention to remove the statues. The suit also sought to preclude the city from renaming the parks, which had been named after Lee and Jackson, but a judge ruled park names were not protected.
Randolph said he thought the tour was outstanding.
“It’s such a need within the community to educate people about the history of this area, not just Charlottesville but this area, and just seeing how deeply seeded racism is within Charlottesville and Albemarle,” he said.
McKeel said she was glad she went on the tour and that, despite living here for 40 years, she learned a lot.
“I’ve heard over the years bits and pieces of history — this connected the dots in a way and helped me see in totality how racism and how rewriting history worked to create the picture that many of us grew up with,” she said.
The information, she said, helped her better understand how textbooks played into why many people believe what they believe.
“We have a wonderful opportunity with the city parks and our downtown courthouse to really contextualize and help educate everyone that comes here, not only our citizens and our young people but tourists, about the history of what really happened in this community,” McKeel said.
Randolph said he thought the petition was “barking up the wrong tree.”
“We don’t set that law; that was set by the general assembly,” he said. “You want to see the state change its law, put the pressure on the state legislature and get them to change the law, because in the end, what Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors says doesn’t really matter.”
He said it would be “a mistake” to remove the statues from downtown, but would like to contextualize them.
McKeel said she thought the statues should be brought down off of the pedestals, brought away from the center of the parks and contextualized.
She said she thought a lot of the tour discussions were around social justice, such as education, the ability to vote and equality.
“Having said that, when you go to our courthouse and you talk about our courthouse, you talk about criminal justice,” she said. “You look at our current criminal justice system and then you have this historic courthouse, where currently we have African Americans that are coming into this courthouse with the expectation of criminal justice, and are we sending the right message?”
“I’m not in favor of tearing all this down, I just think we have to somehow or another contextualize it, and our general assembly legislators really need to help us with the permission to do some of this,” McKeel said.
Randolph asked why the community should be a party to maintaining the deceit and said the statues send an important message to coming generations.
“We know the truth, and the truth shall set us free, because we, white and black, cannot be truly free unless we acknowledge this racist legacy that’s here in the county and in the city,” he said.
Later Saturday morning, the community was invited to a presentation and panel discussion on “Lost Cause” images in public spaces and schools. Representatives from the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County, a group urging Albemarle County Public Schools to ban all symbols of racial and ethnic hatred, spoke at the event.
Albemarle County School Board member Katrina Callsen, who also went on the tour, was joined by School Board Vice Chairman Jonno Alcaro at the discussion.
Both Schmidt and Christensen said the Board of Supervisors need to support including language in the state code that would allow localities to remove the statues in its legislative packet that gets presented to area legislators ahead of the General Assembly session.
“We’re coming to them and saying ‘this is what needs to change,’ they need to step up, take that leadership role and push for changes,” Christensen said.