CHARLOTTESVILLE — Nearly a century after it was first erected, and almost four years after it triggered a deadly weekend of violence, the statue of Robert E. Lee sitting on horseback in downtown Charlottesville was hoisted into the air Saturday and carted away on a truck.

Many of those watching the bronze monument come down shared the same response: It had been a long time coming.

“I don’t have much to say other than this is well overdue,” said Zyahna Bryant, who started a petition while in high school in 2016 to remove the statue. “This should have happened a long time ago.”

After years of legal battles, protests and tensions that gripped the community and sometimes the nation, it took only a few minutes for workers to pull the 1,100-pound figure off its pedestal and drive away.

The Charlottesville City Council had initially voted to remove the statue in February 2017, following Bryant’s petition. But a group of residents sued only a few weeks later, sparking a prolonged fight in court over whether the city could topple such monuments. 

Others took their defense of the Confederate iconography to the streets. That summer, white supremacists descended on the city in violent protest. One man drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. 

Long a fraught symbol for many in Charlottesville, the Lee figure quickly became a national flash point over tensions on how to deal with statues honoring the Confederate war leaders who fought a losing battle to preserve the institution of slavery.

Like a statue of fellow Gen. Stonewall Jackson three blocks away, the Lee monument was vandalized with paint and graffiti, and “patrolled” by armed groups last summer. Residents fought over whether it could be shrouded in black cloth following Heyer’s death, and politicians on both sides of the aisle cited the statue and what it had come to symbolize.

Following a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia earlier this spring, the city of Charlottesville abruptly announced Friday it would remove the statues of Lee and Jackson. Officials said the statues will be placed in a “secure location” on city property for the time being.

“It’s about time,” said the Rev. Brenda Brown-Grooms, who was born and raised in Charlottesville and is now a pastor at New Beginnings Christian Community. The removal of the statues “means we are one step closer to accepting the historical fact of slavery and what it means for not just the people who were enslaved, but for those who were the enslavers.”

Early Saturday morning, a green crane lifted a pair of workers beside the Lee monument, which had stood on a pedestal in a downtown Charlottesville park since 1924. They tossed red pulls and chains over the Confederate general and around the horse’s legs. 

Just after 8 a.m., the men in neon vests lifted the statue into the air, and a small crowd of residents began to cheer from the sidewalk.

Kevin Cox, 68, who whooped as it landed on the trailer, said he was glad to see Lee wheeled away.

“It symbolized one thing when it was put up, and it came to symbolize a more intense, concentrated version of the same racism,” he said.

A few feet away, Lena Jones, a 63-year-old health-care worker and lifelong Charlottesville resident, said Saturday marked a major step forward in the city’s history — even if it was one that had taken too long.

“We just don’t need things in Charlottesville to intimidate some people,” she said, “because we all have to live together.”

Both the Lee and Jackson statues were commissioned about a century ago by Paul Goodloe McIntire, a stockbroker whose name is displayed on streets and buildings across town. Placed in the center of two grassy plazas, the figures of the Confederate generals rapidly became a backdrop for the city’s civic life.

Market Street Park — which had been named after Lee until recently — served as fairgrounds for annual festivals and a temporary resting spot for the homeless people who used a nearby day shelter.

Three blocks away, the horseback statue of Jackson stood yards from a local courthouse, where enslaved people had been bought and sold, and law offices for the attorneys who had argued to preserve the statues. A plaque dedicated to McIntire in the corner of the park notes that the Jackson statue was erected “for the pleasure of all who pass by.”

But across the street on Saturday, William Taylor raised his camera to snap pictures of workers chipping away at the base of the monument.

“I want to keep this thought forever,” the 54-year-old custodian said. As a crane hoisted the 7,000-pound figure, Taylor rolled his shoulders back. “It feels like a weight is coming off me too,” he added.

A friend of Heyer’s, he said he had last spoken to her the day before she was killed. When he heard the monuments would be coming down, he knew he had to make the hour-long drive hour from Nelson County for her.

The Jackson statue was strapped moments later onto a flatbed with thick yellow bands, and Taylor kept snapping photos. He said he would share them with his sons, Xavier, 18, and Rico, 2, to show them how the city had righted the wrongs of August 2017.

“I’m feeling a little relieved, but there’s a long way to go,” he said. “This is just the beginning of what needs to change in our society.”

With the statues in storage, the city must now confront a new debate: Where should the monuments end up permanently?

Some people have called for them to be destroyed. Others say they prefer to see them stored away, much like Confederate statues in Richmond now lying flat beside a wastewater treatment facility.

City officials said they have been searching for battlefields, museums or historical associations that might want to house the figures. Ten sites, including four in Virginia, have expressed interest so far.

But Niya Bates, 31, has a different proposal: She wants the bronze to be melted down and transformed into new monuments — ones that honor the enslaved Black people who built Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, including some with ties to Bates herself.

“Why take them and put them somewhere else, where they’re going to terrorize someone else’s community?” asked Bates, a graduate student at Princeton University studying the history of slavery. “There are so many opportunities for both of these parks to become symbols that honor people like our ancestors.”

She is part of a group working with administrators on how to craft reparations to the descendants of those enslaved people, following the passage of a Virginia law that orders U-Va. and four other public colleges to reckon with their ties to slavery. Bates said they want an equal voice in designing debt relief and scholarships — and many of the other structural changes that must follow the removal of the statues.

“I’m excited to see our community finally dealing with symbols of white supremacy. . . . Symbols have power,” she said. “This is a good way to start a conversation about meaningful systemic change.”

Joe Heim contributed to this report.