It’s been a year since statues of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stood in Charlottesville’s downtown parks, but the controversy over the removal and the statues’ fates have yet to be resolved.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center was granted ownership of the Lee statue by the city in December, but the ownership is now in court. Two other organizations who applied for ownership of the Lee statue, Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation, on behalf of its subsidiary Ellenbrook Museum, are suing the city for giving the statue to JSAAHC.
The two allege the city violated the Freedom of Information Act, Virginia Public Procurement Act and state code when it awarded the Lee statue to JSAAHC in December. JSAAHC was initially named as a defendant when the suit was initially filed but has since been removed. The foundations are represented by attorneys Ralph Main, Jock Yellott and S. Braxton Puryear, who also represented Charlottesville area residents in a previous Monument Fund-backed lawsuit against the city over votes to remove the Lee and Jackson statues.
City spokesman David Dillehunt said the city does not comment on matters of pending litigation.
Much of the lawsuit appears to be in response to JSAAHC’s intentions for the monument, titled the “Swords Into Plowshares” project, which notably includes a plan to melt down the statue and recast Lee’s brass ingots into a new work of art that reflects the Charlottesville community’s values of racial inclusivity.
The plaintiffs are claiming that melting the statue specifically would violate state statute. In court filings, the plaintiffs say “relocating a war monument to a foundry furnace for [alteration] and destruction is not on the list of what is permissible.”
Rich Schragger, a law professor at the University of Virginia and expert on constitutional and local government law, said the lawsuit is “a little tricky.” It comes down to how the court will interpret the state statute that allowed the city to take the statues down in the first place. The court will have to decide if the city’s bidding process for the statues followed state law or violated it.
“If the court says that the city violated the law, then it can order the statue to be presumably returned to the city. The city still has, under the state law, the right to do what it wishes within limits within the statute,” Schragger said.
However, this doesn’t mean the plaintiffs would get the statue.
“My understanding is the plaintiffs are demanding that the statute be given to them or preserved. I doubt that that’s a possible avenue of relief for them. The appropriate relief, if the plaintiff circuit rules that way, would be that the city redo the bidding process and the city just gets the property back,” Schragger said.
Schragger said the process could take a long time, potentially one to two years, while it’s possible it may be wrapped up sooner than that.
JSAAHC has not been prohibited from melting the statue, however, said Andrea Douglas, director of JSAAHC. Douglas said they are waiting until litigation is over to do so. Douglas declined to share the location of the statue due to security concerns. She did say, however, that JSAAHC moved quickly to disassemble the statue after receiving the official deed of gift from the city in December and that it has been broken up into multiple pieces.
“The lawsuit is yet another means of controlling and maintaining white supremacy, without question,” Douglas said.
Schragger said it’s possible a lawsuit of this kind could be a tactic on behalf of the plaintiffs to discourage other jurisdictions from removing their statues.
“We’ve seen that these groups seem to be well-funded and motivated particularly in an instance where the outcome is still not a clear victory for them again,” Schragger said. “I think part of this strategy is to raise the cost for cities and create both political and legal barriers for other cities who are contemplating removing their statues.”
Beyond the lawsuit, Douglas said JSAAHC has received hate mail and threats, and has been the target of coordinated malware attacks. She said they came from parties trying to prevent the center from fundraising for the Swords into Plowshares project. Malware attacks have been made on both the JSAAHC website and IndieGoGo campaign page, she said.
“There’s no sort of very public threat that has been made, but our websites have been attacked. They’re trying to make it difficult for us to raise money around this project,” Douglas said. “They’re using tactics that basically are contrary to the will of Charlottesville. This is cyberstalking or cyberterrorism."
"[Opponents to the project] see these things along racial lines. As a result, you’ve got to be ready," she said. "These folks are not afraid to kill Black people.”
Despite the lawsuit and backlash, Swords into Plowshares has raised just under $700,000 and JSAAHC is moving ahead on its public input process. The goal is to hear from and garner ideas from as many community members as possible for what to do with the statue. Douglas said the lawsuit has allowed more time to collect this input.
Jalane Schmidt, director of UVa’s Memory Project which is partnering with JSAAHC on the project, said they’ve made an effort to reach out to a variety of ages and demographics through the process, including getting ideas from schoolchildren.
“We’re getting feedback from young people because this whole process started with young people, and they’re the ones who are going to be inheriting these spaces,” said Schmidt, referencing Zyahna Bryant, who was a high schooler when she started a petition to get the city to remove the statues.
Douglas said they’ve heard a variety of ideas from both community members and artists interested in taking on the project, but a recurring theme is people want the new art to be interactive and contemplative. And it won’t necessarily be a statue or stand in the space where the Lee statue stood.
“This is really about what is the most appropriate object that articulates what Charlottesville believes to be its desire,” Douglas said.
The Lee statue is not the only city statue under new ownership. City Council unanimously voted in December to send the statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to LAXART in Los Angeles.
The exhibit is slated to open next fall 2023 at LAXART and The Geffen Contemporary gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Titled "MONUMENTS," the exhibit will be accompanied by a substantial scholarly publication and a robust slate of public and educational programming.
The exhibit is funded by the Mellon Foundation, Teiger Foundation, Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Individual support is provided by Margaret Morgan and Wesley Phoa.
The exhibit will include other similar statues, all of which will be exhibited alongside works of contemporary art to put the monuments in social and historical context. The idea is to critique and confront the false narrative and ideology of the Lost Cause.
Walker said LAXART is being loaned 15 statues and other displays from jurisdictions all over the country, including Pittsburgh, Houston, Boston and Montgomery, Alabama.
Joining Charlottesville’s Stonewall Jackson are three statues from Richmond and a statue from Randolph College in Lynchburg. LAXART reimbursed the city of Charlottesville $50,000 for the Jackson statue, which is now owned and in the possession of LAXART.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the afterlife of these [statues] is. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution," said Hamza Walker, LAXART Director. “We need to radically recontextualize these things, not just with a plaque.”
Walker said one artist LAXART is working with, Bethany Collins, plans to use the granite from the base of the Jackson statue to create a carpet of granite rose petals.
The petals will honor of formerly enslaved Black women who started many of the earliest Memorial Day recognitions by laying rose petals on the graves of fallen Union soldiers.
“It’s a memorial to the very first memorializers,” Walker said. “Our proposal [to the city of Charlottesville] was about a transformation of these objects. And that’s perfect. That to me is a very beautiful gesture.”
The exhibit will have other local connections. LAXART asked Kevin Jerome Everson, a film artist and Charlottesville native, to create a film portrait of Richard Bradley, a Black man who climbed up a flagpole in front of San Francisco City Hall in 1984 to remove the Confederate flag displayed there.
As for the Jackson statue itself, LAXART is working with an artist to figure out the best way to display it.
“I’m looking forward to that project immensely, that transformation. I don’t know what the artist will do, whether she’ll keep it intact in the news, whether they’ll use it in an installation, or whether it will be reconfigured, melted down and transformed in that way. So I’m very excited about that commission,” Walker said.
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