The Lee monument, which has been a rallying symbol for white supremacists, was at the center of a deadly weekend of violence in 2017. Months after Charlottesville officials voted to remove the Confederate iconography, far-right activists held a demonstration in the city to protest the statues’ planned dismantlement. White nationalists clashed with counterprotesters and a neo-Nazi drove a car through the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The Lee statue was finally removed in July.
Other would-be owners, which include arts groups and historical societies, have offered to pay as much as $100,000 for the two statues, though the Jefferson School is only seeking the Lee monument.
Gregory Downs, a historian at the University of California at Davis, praised the Jefferson School’s proposal as a creative way to “confront the past and help people better understand the past.”
While some advocate for putting removed Confederate iconography in a museum, he noted that there were too many such monuments for institutions to physically hold. “There’s also the danger that a museum or park holding Confederate statues could turn into a shrine” for extremists, Downs said.
Lee’s 26-feet-high Charlottesville monument was installed in 1924, at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was undergoing a revival and Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation were widespread across the nation. Such iconography has also caused significant pain to Black residents of Charlottesville.
“You have armed vigilantes up there guarding a piece of property, these two statues, as though it is the water of life,” Ang Conn, a Black activist in Charlottesville, told The Washington Post before the sculpture was removed. “It hasn’t ended. We’re targeted all the time. We have to watch what we’re doing.”
Close to 170 Confederate symbols were taken down in 2020, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a sharp increase from the 114 symbols removed from public view between June 2015 and February 2019.
But some historians expressed concern about the increasing number of statue takedowns.
Replacing such monuments might fuel far-right activists to vengeance without doing anything practical toward eliminating racial inequity, said Peter Carmichael, a Civil War historian at Gettysburg College.
“I ask ‘what’s next in terms of meaningful steps towards dealing with economic inequality, housing inequality, Black incarceration or education?’” he said.
Downs, the California professor, said that there were many other Civil War heroes Virginians could admire. He suggested they look into John Mercer Langston — a prominent Black abolitionist who helped recruit African American troops into the U.S. military, or other Virginians who had stayed loyal to the Union.