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Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue will be melted down by city’s African American history museum

A statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee is lifted off its pedestal in Market Street Park in Charlottesville on July 10. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that once provoked a deadly weekend of violence in Charlottesville will be melted down and turned into a new piece of public artwork, following a vote by city lawmakers early Tuesday morning.

The city had for months been searching for a new owner for the 1,100-pound monument, which served as the focal point of the white-supremacist Unite the Right rally in 2017. After the city took the statue down over the summer, six proposals on what to do with it were submitted by arts groups, historical societies or individuals, some offering to pay the city as much as $50,000 for the bronze sculpture.

But the Charlottesville City Council voted 4 to 0 to hand it over to the only local bidder: the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, a Black-led museum that proposed repurposing the metal entirely.

Called “Swords Into Plowshares,” the project “will allow Charlottesville to contend with its racist past,” Andrea Douglas, the museum’s executive director, said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “It really is about taking something that had been harmful and transforming it into something that is representative of the city’s values today.”

The museum will consult Charlottesville residents in the coming months, including in open forums early next year, to determine guidelines for the art piece, and then convene a jury to select one idea, Douglas said. The end result will be gifted back to the city to display on public land by 2024.

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As dozens of Confederate statues have come down across Virginia and beyond in recent years, Douglas said the project is meant to offer one road map to answer the sometimes thorny question that follows: Once these tributes to the Lost Cause are toppled, where do they go next?

One memorial known as “At Ready” or “Johnny Reb,” which last year was removed from its perch outside the Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville, was handed over to a historical foundation in Shenandoah County.

But many others have had a less certain future: A separate state-owned monument in Richmond of Robert E. Lee, whose pedestal was set to be dismantled starting this month, is being kept in an undisclosed storage location.

Charlottesville city lawmakers are set to vote Dec. 20 on what to do with the statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and another of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea that had been subject to years of petitions from Native American groups. Both of those monuments came down the same weekend as Lee, and many groups submitted proposals to receive the Lee and Jackson statues together.

Douglas, who said moving a statue like “Johnny Reb” simply outsources a hateful object elsewhere, said the Jefferson School’s proposal was meant to reimagine the realm of possibilities. The museum has so far raised about $590,000 of $1.1 million in estimated costs.

“We want to think about this as a creative process,” she said. “What can you generate out of trauma, so you end up with something that is reflective of our contemporary moment?”

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The movement to take down Charlottesville’s Lee statue began with a petition crafted in 2015 by Zyahna Bryant, then a local high school student. City lawmakers responded by voting in 2017 to remove the Confederate general from his perch at Market Street Park.

A group of residents sued a few weeks later, sparking a prolonged fight in court over whether the city could bring the sculpture down. At the Unite the Right rally that summer, planned by several white-supremacist groups to protest taking the statue down, one man drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

In subsequent months, the Lee monument was vandalized with paint and graffiti, and residents fought over whether it could be shrouded in black cloth following Heyer’s death. It wasn’t until a favorable ruling this spring from the Supreme Court of Virginia that the city abruptly announced it would be taking down the statues of both Lee and Jackson.

And while more than 30 groups or individuals expressed interest in taking ownership of the two Confederate generals over the summer, only six submitted requests.

One bid came from a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, which is organizing an exhibit on the Lost Cause and Confederate monuments. Others came from a historical site and haunted house in Jackson’s West Virginia hometown, and a foundation that operates a museum in Russell County, the ancestral home of Confederate Gem J.E.B. Stuart.

One Texas man sent a handwritten letter to the city offering to put the Lee and Jackson statues on his 2,700-acre property.

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In recent months, city lawmakers had repeatedly said that neither statue should end up somewhere it would be used to celebrate the Lost Cause. And on Monday night, many residents who spoke before the Charlottesville City Council echoed that perspective.

Lisa Draine, whose daughter was injured in the deadly car attack that killed Heyer, said that destroying the statue was the only way forward after their removal over the summer — a “huge symbolic victory,” but one that nonetheless fell short.

“That act would not bring back Heather Heyer or undo the physical and emotional damage to my daughter,” she told lawmakers. “It would not correct the harms of the past 400 years that our Black citizens have endured. As long as the Lee statue remains intact, the harm persists.”

In an interview after the vote Tuesday, City Council member Michael Payne (D) said he was only willing to vote for the Jefferson School’s proposal, which he said had taken appropriate efforts to recast the Lee statue’s ugly history.

“That statue is loaded with so many negative meanings,” he said, “that the only options we should consider are ones that take the opportunity to involve the community in transforming a new narrative.”

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