Robert E. Lee statue

A statue depicting Confederate Gen. Robert Edward Lee stands in a public park in downtown Charlottesville. 

After recently deciding in a 6-3 vote that it will recommend that the Charlottesville City Council choose to let the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stay in place, a citizen panel that some feared would see to their removal presented to the public Thursday a draft of its final report on the matter.

In addition to recommending that the statues remain in place — on the condition that the city rename and redesign the parks to “transform” the statues’ meaning — the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces report includes a handful of other recommendations aimed to help tell “the full story of Charlottesville’s history of race.”

“This is a history that few people know. But if we want to understand segregation, black poverty and the over-policing of the African-American community in our city, we have to understand this history,” commission member John Mason said.

“We have to teach this history to Charlottesville,” said Mason, who voted to keep the statues in place. “We have to teach the central themes in Charlottesville history in a central place,” he said.

Mason reiterated that it’ll be difficult to contextualize a statue that essentially glorifies the Confederacy and white supremacy, which is contrarian to the narrative of “freedom,” which he said is the legacy that African-Americans and many others today and in the past, assign to the Civil War.

According to the draft of the report, the commission believes the city could “transform” the meaning of the statues by initiating a design competition or standard project-bidding process. Another prospective option for the parks is the commissioning of new public art.

Per the report, “A new name, new design and new interpretive material for the park[s] and sculpture[s] may transform the landscape and situate the Lee [and Jackson] sculpture[s] in a new, more complete historical context that better reflects the community’s current values and understanding of the past.”

More than a dozen other recommendations are included in the 19-page draft of its report. Those recommendations include:

» Replace the existing Court Square Slave Auction Block marker and commission a new memorial on or near Court Square;

» Support conservation of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery and applaud the Bridge Builders Committee’s work to improve the visibility and appearance of the Drewary J. Brown Memorial Bridge;

» Provide financial assistance for the proposed Vinegar Hill Park and Vinegar Hill Monument, as well as funding for historic resource surveys of African-American, Native American and local labor neighborhoods and sites;

» Sponsor local history research by the local institutions, such as the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and Albemarle-Charlottesville Historical Society;

» Find opportunities to name new roads, bridges and other infrastructure after ideas and people who represent the city but reject building new monuments to individuals;

» Designate March 3 as “Liberation Day” or “Freedom Day” to commemorate when the Union Army marched into Charlottesville in 1865;

» Urge the city to participate in the Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial to Peace and Justice by displaying a memorial marking the lynching of John Henry James to “confront the truth and terror of white supremacy in the Jim Crow era, and

» Encourage and support the development of class curricula and teach the history of slavery and racism that inform coursework for African-American and Native American history classes that would be taught in local public schools on a continual basis.

In Thursday’s forum, about 60 people signed up to speak about the draft of the commission’s report.

An organized mass of about three or four dozen people attended the forum to protest the commission’s tentative recommendation to keep the statues in the park.

Of all the speakers Thursday, an apparent majority asked the commission to consider voting again on whether they want to recommend moving the statue.

Among the organized speakers advocating for the statues’ removal was University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt, who said it’s “unconscionable” to have monuments that represent people who “fought to dissolve our nation, maintain slavery and withhold citizenship for black Americans.”

Saying that 52 percent of the population in Albemarle County and the city was enslaved at the time of the Civil War, Schmidt said new monuments should be made to recognize “the size of their population and the magnitude of their struggle.

“The Confederate statues need to be moved so that history can be publicly retold and physically represented so that we can change our history’s narrative around race.”

Zyahna Bryant, the Charlottesville High School student who earlier this year started a petition to have the statues moved, thus spurring the creation of the commission, predicted that acrimonious feelings about the statue won’t vanish if they remain.

Recommending the council take stock in what young people think about the statues, she said, “If you don’t, we’ll be right back here in 15 to 20 years having the same discussion ... .”

While many speakers Thursday asked the commission to reconsider its recommendations for the statues, some thanked them for choosing to keep the statues in place while committing to the goal of presenting a broader picture of history.

“I know this has not been an easy vote for any of you to take, but I want to thank for helping us preserve our history and our monuments,” Scott Wawner said. “I feel that many of the decisions made by this commission will enhance the story of all the people that have had an important impact on the Charlottesville area.”

A few others were not so optimistic about the tentative recommendations, however, arguing that the recent victory of President-elect Donald Trump has emboldened racists and bigots.

“If we think white supremacy is gone, you need to look on the internet and see what’s happening in our world right now,” said Lisa Green, a member of the city’s planning commission.

“I ask you to reconsider your vote and think about what this does to our children who are getting bullied in our schools today. … [T]hink about that when you make these choices,” she said.

* * *

Earlier in the day at a City Council retreat meeting at Morven Farm in Albemarle County, councilors briefly discussed the commission’s work and how they will move forward with it — although, only vaguely.

Developing a new three-year strategic plan, the council agreed to include “intentionally address issues of race and equity” as one of its initiatives.

In an interview, Councilor Kristin Szakos declined to talk about the commission’s tentative recommendations.

Ultimately, she said, what happens with the statues and the other recommendations is a “decision that has to be made” by the council.

The commission will hold its final meeting on Nov. 28 at CitySpace.

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Chris Suarez is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7274, or @Suarez_CM  on Twitter.

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