Charlottesville’s statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as a one of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea, all were removed within a span of eight hours Saturday — capping a years-long effort by many to rid the city of the monuments.
Erected over the course of five years, the three statues, all commissioned by Paul Goodloe McIntire and gifted to the city, stood for a century. Now, only their pedestals remain.
The historic moment was subdued and peaceful, with dozens gathering on a warm, clear Saturday morning to watch the removals at Market Street and Court Square parks. Crews needed less than two hours to unscrew, remove and load each statue on a flatbed trailer.
“Taking down these statues is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia, and America grapple with its sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said, addressing a crowd of dozens as a crane moved into Market Street Park.
Walker spoke about the long and arduous process to remove the statues, as well as the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017.
The city has been working toward the removal of the century-old bronze statues for years. A change in state law and a Supreme Court of Virginia decision paved the way for Saturday’s actions. Councilors voted June 7 to remove the statues.
Walker said this is just a small step and that more needs to be done to address white supremacy within the city and beyond.
“We’re one step closer to the tranquility promised by the writer of the Constitution. We are so far from the perfect union but one step closer today as these two statues come down,” she said.
Late Saturday afternoon, the White House released a statement in support of the statues’ removal.
“As President [Joe] Biden has said, there is a difference between reminders and remembrances of history,” the statement read. “The president believes that monuments to Confederate leaders belong in museums, not in public places, and welcomes the removal of the statues today.”
Virginia State Police troopers and Charlottesville police officers were present at the parks; they mostly served to enforce road closures and escort the removal crews’ vehicles. City spokesman Brian Wheeler said the city did not have a number to share on the personnel resources involved in the day’s events.
Only the statues were removed. Wheeler said the city would release a plan for removing the bases next week.
The city moved quickly to remove the Confederate statues after allocating funding for the work on Wednesday. Officials provided few details about its plans until a formal announcement Friday afternoon.
The city awarded a contract to Team Henry Enterprises to remove the statues on an emergency basis. The same team will remove the University of Virginia’s statue of George Rogers Clark beginning Sunday.
Wheeler said he could not comment on the nature of the emergency or the price of the contract.
The towering Confederate statues have drawn the most attention in recent years — both from supporters and those who wanted to see the structures removed.
On Saturday, crews started with the Lee statue at Market Street Park as a small crowd watched.
Throughout the morning, activists who have worked toward this day for years gathered, embracing and crying as the statues were removed. Others who stopped by the parks included families with small children, high school students and visitors from out-of-town who made the drive to witness the moment.
Zyahna Bryant, who was a student at Charlottesville High School when she wrote a 2016 petition that contributed to the ultimate decision to remove, addressed the crowd Saturday morning, as well.
“To the young people out there, I hope that this empowers you to speak up on the issues that matter and to take charge in your own cities and communities,” Bryant said.
Construction crews started removing the Lee statue just after 7 a.m. and worked quickly to unscrew and lift it off the base. In just over an hour, the statue was loaded on a truck and sent to a city facility on Avon Street Extended for storage. The process of removing Lee went much quicker than the crew and city staff expected. Some onlookers were taken by surprise when it popped off the base shortly after 8 a.m.
As the crane moved the bronze statue through the air to a flatbed truck, a crowd gathered at the Second Street Northeast-Jefferson Street intersection to catch a glimpse. The crowd applauded and cheered as the truck drove the statue away. Dozens of onlookers took photos and videos of the statue leaving the park.
Some onlookers sang “Hey, hey, goodbye” as the truck drove out of sight. Someone in the crowd shouted “goodbye General Lee and good riddance!”
After seeing the Lee statue off, the crowds moved down Jefferson Street to the Jackson statue.
Staff members from the Region Ten Community Services Board were on hand at the removals to provide mental health support for anyone who needed it. They handed out flyers with mental health resources specifically geared toward communities of color.
Region Ten’s 24-hour mental health emergency service line is (434) 972-1800.
“Removing the statues is one step toward dismantling white supremacy in our community but there is so much more to be done,” the flyer read. “You may feel anger, grief, relief or even joy, all at the same time. For some community members, this time may be a reminder of trauma already endured.”
Shortly after 9 a.m., the crew started work on the Jackson statue. The removal took a bit longer than the Lee statue, but the Jackson statue still left Court Square Park by 11 a.m.
The crowd, which had at least doubled in size since the removal of the Lee statue, loudly cheered and applauded the crew.
“Get ready,” someone shouted in anticipation.
Some members of the crowd chanted “f*** white supremacy” as the statue was strapped to the truck.
City councilors voiced their support for city staff’s work in executing the removal process.
“The police chief, the city manager, all of the other people who had to be involved really did a great job of planning it so that it could come off without a hitch,” Councilor Lloyd Snook said in an interview.
Councilor Sena Magill tweeted her thanks late Saturday afternoon.
“There is so much to say,” she wrote. “Thank you to those who started the journey to remove these statues. Thank you to the tremendous work of city staff to get them removed quickly and safely. We take a moment to celebrate knowing we still have much work to do.”
In a surprise turn of events Saturday, the City Council voted to remove the statue of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea less than an hour before the process began in a quickly called special meeting.
Following the removal of the Lee and Jackson statues, Walker called the emergency meeting to vote on the removal of the third statue. City Manager Chip Boyles said that the removal crew, Team Henry Enterprises, offered to remove the statue at no additional cost to the city because the other statues were removed more quickly than expected.
The council had long sought to take down the statue, voting in 2019 for its removal after meeting with descendants of Sacagawea. Descendants of Sacagawea have said they oppose the statue because it depicts her crouched beneath Lewis and Clark and she is not visible from all sides of the statue. Sacagawea’s name is also not on the base alongside Lewis’ and Clark’s, but is on a small plaque beneath the statue.
The statue was installed in 1919.
Rose Ann Abrahamson, a descendant of Sacagawea and a Shoshone-Bannock woman, said during a council work session in 2019 that she has seen nearly every depiction of her ancestor in the country.
“This statue in Charlottesville was the worst we have ever seen,” she said.
Around 12:15 p.m. Saturday, the council unanimously voted for the removal of the statue. By 1 p.m., the city closed all streets in the immediate vicinity of the Ridge-McIntire-West Main Street intersection. The statue began its journey out of the city at around 2:45 pm. It was taken to Darden Towe Park in Albemarle County, where the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center is located.
Although the statues have been removed, the City Council still needs to vote on what will happen to them.
Virginia statute required the city to observe a 30-day waiting period to allow entities such as battlefields and museums to submit statements of interest in acquiring the Lee and Jackson statues. This period ended Thursday. The city has said 10 entities expressed interest in the statues.
While the council is required to review these statements of interest, it is not required to approve any of them. Alternatively, councilors could vote to demolish the statues.
During Saturday’s emergency meeting, councilors discussed transferring ownership of the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue to the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center, but did not make a decision.
The city hasn’t scheduled a vote for any of the statues’ fates yet. The council’s next meeting is July 19, but the agenda has not been published.
Snook said he is not opposed to the statues’ ownership being transferred, especially if the city can recoup some of the money spent on removal to use for replacement monuments.
“The reason for them to have been moved elsewhere was if somebody else wanted them, and was willing to take them at no expense to the city. Now that we’ve incurred the expense of moving, I’m a lot less interested in putting them someplace else,” Snook said.
“Let’s face it, if it’s costing us close to $1 million to move these darn things, that’s $1 million that we can’t spend on what comes next. And if we can recoup some of that, without doing undue violence to the general body politic, I’m happy to think about those options.”
Snook said he has some general ideas for monuments to go in place of the Lee and Jackson statues, but he would like for the council to work with artists to design replacements.
Jalane Schmidt, a local activist and professor at UVa, said it was a relief to see the statues come down.
“It was really quick … I’m glad they were able to move them. It’s amazing, because the wheels of government and bureaucracy often turn very slowly,” she said.
Schmidt said she doesn’t want the city to rush into determining what should replace the statues.
“I think what would be appropriate is to have community discussions about that and take time. These were here for a century, so we can take our time,” she said.