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Community begins reimagining Lee statue at Swords Into Plowshares kickoff

The journey to reinvent Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee has begun. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center kicked off the process at a community engagement session Saturday, held at the museum.

“This is not the Heritage Center’s decision, this is not my decision … this is your decision,” Dr. Andrea Douglas, the center’s director, told the participants. She said the project is intended to be guided by the community.

City Council unanimously voted to donate the Lee statue to the local Black history museum in December at a City Council meeting. The center’s proposal to City Council, entitled Swords Into Plowshares, outlined a plan to melt down the Lee statue into ingots and use the bronze to create a new work of public art through an extensive community engagement process.

Saturday’s was the first community engagement meeting, with about 75 people participating in person and an additional two dozen via Zoom.

After community engagement sessions throughout the spring and summer, the center will compile the results of their findings to create a guiding document to be presented to the community by Fall 2022.

In Winter 2022, the center plans to announce a request for proposals and craft a jury process which will require interested artists to engage with the community in public forums as well as the guiding document created prior to artists’ submission of their proposals.

The public art will then be gifted to the city for installation on public land. However, it’s possible the reimagined statue will take different shape from a traditional sculpture. Douglas said the goal is not to simply replace an object with another object, but reimagine what could be done with the bronze to express the community’s values in a public space. She said the field is totally open for any ideas, and the object of Saturday’s gathering was to start brainstorming and exploring these ideas.

“We’re not looking for the representation of the Black body to replace the object. We’re looking for the representation of Charlottesville and how Charlottesville deals with its own needs towards healing. Something happened to us. Something has been happening to us. So how do we channel all of that energy?” Douglas said.

Douglas and Dr. Jalane Schmidt, director of the Memory Project at the University of Virginia, led a presentation about memorials in public spaces prior to asking participants to split into small groups to brainstorm. Schmidt asked participants to think about what public spaces makes people feel comfortable, what makes a public space inviting and how a public space expresses the community’s values.

“I was really energized to hear the ideas that were generated here today. Some of the ideas that I’ve heard today involved inclusion, movement, how could we have more than one sense being engaged in public spaces,” Schmidt said in an interview. “There was just a sense of expectation and possibility here today. It was really positive.

The next community engagement session will take place in May. More information will be available closer to the date at Community members can also share their ideas for the project by taking a survey on the site.


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