Streets that had surged with white supremacists three years ago now rang with music and happy cheers. Families brought small children in blue Union Civil War caps. People wearing Black Lives Matter shirts danced as a student radio station played Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone.
"This is a magnificent moment," said community organizer Don Gathers, 61. "Much of the racial tension, strife and protest we're seeing across the country emanates from right here in Charlottesville. But now we're moving the needle in a positive way."
Albemarle County supervisors voted earlier this summer to take down the Confederate memorial outside their courthouse.
The statue was not the focal point of the violent rally in 2017 that left one counterprotester dead. But it is a block away from the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups said they were defending in a clash that endures as a symbol of the nation’s racial divide.
“These statues have been haunting this community for decades but especially since Unite the Right,” said Del. Sally L. Hudson (D-Charlottesville), who sponsored legislation Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law this year empowering localities to remove Civil War statues. “This part of town felt like a ghost town for the last three years because of all the violence. For us, taking down this statue is one step in reclaiming these public spaces.”
Charlottesville’s city council voted to remove both the Lee monument and another nearby depicting fellow Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, but a small group of Confederate supporters filed suit to save them. The case is headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia and could take months to be resolved.
In the meantime, armed individuals and groups have continued to make periodic “patrols” around the Confederate figures in the area near the courthouse. Small clusters of police officers stood at various points around the courthouse square early Friday evening but kept a low profile Saturday. There was no obvious sign of Confederate sympathizers at the scene.
County and city officials put up metal and plastic barriers around the courthouse to keep people away from the work zone, citing concerns about the need to preserve social distancing to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. They urged residents to watch the live-streamed event on Albemarle County social media, though more than 100 people showed up, beginning about 6:30 a.m.
“This is school right now,” said Shannon Gillikin, 36, who came with her husband and three young children. “They’ve been learning about this for three years, and we wanted them to see that work can have an impact.”
Confederate statues have been removed across Virginia this year, as protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May have focused attention on the monuments as symbols of racial oppression. In Richmond, protesters pulled down a grand figure of Jefferson Davis. Mayor Levar Stoney, invoking a state of emergency in the Virginia capital, ordered an additional 11 Confederate memorials taken down.
A judge’s injunction challenging Stoney’s action was thrown out by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the plaintiff lacked legal standing.
In June, Confederate statues were removed from public spaces in Alexandria and Norfolk as officials cited safety concerns. Then, Albemarle became the first locality in Virginia to use the legal process for getting rid of statues after the state law took effect July 1. Albemarle’s supervisors moved that day to schedule a public hearing on the topic.
After a public comment period, the board voted unanimously in early August to take down the statue, which was erected in 1909, along with two cannons and a stack of cannonballs. It spent 30 more days receiving proposals for where to relocate the monument, and agreed to send the group of objects to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.
Based in New Market, the foundation helps preserve and promote tourism at Civil War battlefields in eight counties that were collectively designated as a national historic district in 1996. Officials at the foundation could not be reached for comment on their specific plans for the statue.
For activists who have spent years pushing Charlottesville to take down its symbols of racial division, sending the monument to a different public location was a disappointing outcome.
“We feel like it’s just basically toxic waste disposal in another community,” said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia who has helped lead the community effort to get rid of the statues.
But Schmidt said she took heart from the fact it was the machinery of government that finally brought down the statue.
“The state is saying in an official way, ‘We reject this symbol,’ ” she said. “It can’t be written off as the vigilante action of just a few.”
The monument was removed in sections, with the county paying about $60,000 for a local forklift crew and the battlefields foundation pitching in $3,600 for flatbed trucks, Albemarle spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said.
The bronze figure on top was thought to weigh about 900 pounds, but officials didn’t know whether the wedding-cake stack of stones forming the pedestal were solid or hollow, Kilroy said. Saturday’s dismantling was also expected to uncover a time capsule placed somewhere beneath the figure when it was erected.
Preservationists from U-Va. were on hand to examine and conserve whatever items are inside the time capsule.
The work hit a snag when the metal base of the statue appeared to be fused to the stone beneath it. After more than an hour of drilling, grinding and pounding, the statue and a block of stone were lifted in slings and placed in the back of a pickup truck.
At the scene, an elderly White woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she felt bad for the person represented by the figure in bronze. “I think he’s a soldier that did his duty,” the woman said quietly. “I’m glad to see him come down, but I think it’s the pedestal that’s offensive. It wants to make him a hero.”
Andrea Douglas, who is Black and executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, said later that the pedestal was, in fact, most objectionable.
On one side, she said, the stars of a Confederate battle flag were arranged like a Christian cross. On another was the state seal of Virginia. And both stood before the county courthouse. “That says the ideology is ordained by God, sanctioned by the state and perpetuated in our court,” she said.
Once the figure was down and the work crews began turning to the base, Douglas filed through the crowd with a grim air of determination to find Schmidt. The two women partner on community history tours, emphasizing themes of racial justice that — until recently — were not often told.
“You shed a tear?” Douglas asked her colleague.
Schmidt fixed her with a scowl. “No,” she said. But then she smiled. “I’m glad it’s gone. I’m satisfied. This has been the fruit of a lot of work for many years by a lot of people.”