For almost 100 years, two parks in Charlottesville have honored two Confederate generals: Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the visage of each enshrined in bronze.
After white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, some Confederate symbols across the South began to come down. In February, the Charlottesville City Council voted to rename Lee Park and Jackson Park, remove the statue of Lee and include a memorial to those who suffered under slavery.
But this week, Virginia’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, a fund dedicated to “defending our historic monuments,” and 11 citizens sued Charlottesville and its city council, saying the council’s vote on the issue showed “total disregard” for Virginia law.
“The Lee statue and the Jackson statue are Confederate monuments and memorials of the War Between the States,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday in Charlottesville Circuit Court. “Defendants are required by law to protect and to preserve the aforesaid historic monuments.”
The lawsuit asked for an injunction to “freeze the status quo in both parks and stop any potential destruction while this complex litigation moves forward,” according to a statement from the Monument Fund, a plaintiff in the suit.
Plaintiffs also sought $500 each and $100,000 in punitive damages, and said the price of “removing and relocating” the Lee monument would be $330,000.
Other plaintiffs in the suit include a relative of the sculptor of the Lee statue, a woman who “personally expended money and effort” removing graffiti from the statue, and a man who donated money for the restoration of both statues in the 1990s, according to the suit.
Charlottesville’s city attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment. The plaintiffs’ attorneys also declined to comment but referred to a post on the website of the Monument Fund.
“If we remove the monuments, we are trying to hide our own history, destroying irreplaceable historical evidence, works of art, and for what?” the statement said. “What do we gain? An empty lawn teaches nothing.”
Charles L. Weber Jr., a Charlottesville attorney and plaintiff in the suit, said those who wish to defend the statues had “no recourse but to proceed in a court of law.”
Kathleen M. Galvin, an architect and city council member who voted against removing the Lee statue, said the lawsuit was “unfortunate” because it preserved a status quo no one on the council was happy with. Noting that the statues were “well-respected works of art,” she preferred placing a memorial to slaves near the Lee statue.
“Removing the statues erases and mitigates history; failing to alter the parks so as to tell a more complete story, however, obscures and biases history,” she wrote in an email.
Bob Fenwick, a Charlottesville council member who voted to remove the Lee statue, said he was partly swayed by a commission’s recommendation last year that the park be changed — and also was disturbed by the behavior of some Confederate enthusiasts who showed up to city council meetings armed.
“They don’t act anything like what a Southern gentleman would act like,” he said. “There’s something a lot deeper and darker going on there.”