Now that the Charlottesville City Council has officially voted to donate the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the local Black history museum is wasting no time getting its plans in motion.
The Jefferson School’s plan, which was unanimously accepted by City Council, is to melt down the Lee statue and use the bronze to create a new work of public art through a community engagement process. This sculpture would then be donated to the city for installation on public land. The plan is the new sculpture would be completed by 2026.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, commonly referred to simply as the Jefferson School, is a museum with a mission “to honor and preserve the rich heritage and legacy of the African American community of Charlottesville/Albemarle and to promote a greater appreciation for and understanding of, the contributions of African Americans and peoples of the Diaspora.”
The Jefferson School launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign for the project immediately after City Council’s vote in the early morning hours of Tuesday. As of press time, the campaign had raised $10,000 of its $500,000 goal. The museum estimates the first stages of the project will cost $1.1 million. The University of Virginia Memory Project, Virginia Humanities and the Open Society Foundations have pledged a total of $590,000 for the project.
T-shirts, stickers, magnets and tote bags with the Swords Into Plowshares logo, as well as photographic prints of the statues being removed, are available as rewards for contributors to the fundraising campaign.
The funds raised will be used for the transportation of the statue to a foundry and its transformation into bronze ingots, a six-month community engagement process led by UVa’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation, the commissioning of a nationally-recognized artist to work with the community in designing and creating a new work of art and a salaried project manager position at the Jefferson School to oversee Swords Into Plowshares.
The Jefferson School also released a video introducing the project that can be viewed at tinyurl.com/5fanaxcx.
“Our hope with Swords Into Plowshares is to create something that transforms what was once toxic in our public space into something beautiful and more reflective of our entire community’s social values,” Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School, said in the video. “It is a community based project that all of the voices of our community will be able to articulate what we want in our public spaces, as opposed to objects that were given to our community that highlighted a particular ideology that we no longer share.”
Jalane Schmidt, director of the UVa Memory Project, has worked directly with Douglas for several years. She started working on the idea for the project with Douglas after Albemarle County removed its Confederate statue in September 2020. She said she felt elation and relief when City Council voted in favor of the project.
“It’s daunting because there’s a lot of work ahead of us now, but there’s also just really a lot of hopeful expectation. I’m really looking forward to the community engagement process. It’s just so nice to have something positive to focus on instead of wrangling about getting rid of a statue,” Schmidt said. “It’s nice to be able to think about sitting with community members and hearing about people’s aspirations for public space. That’s a real hopeful, exciting kind of feeling.”
Schmidt said while this may be the first time a Confederate statue will be melted and reimagined in this way, there is historic precedent for this kind of transformation. She said in Ancient Greece, communities frequently melted down the statues of former leaders and used the material to create statues of new leaders. It wasn’t a controversial practice, Schmidt said, and it’s continued throughout history.
“The first thing that colonizers in New York City did upon the reading of the Declaration of Independence, they went to the public park and they pulled down a statue of King George the Third and they melted it down. They made it into bullets for the Continental Army for the Revolutionary War,” Schmidt said. Even locally, Schmidt said five churches in Charlottesville donated their bells to be melted down into cannons during the Civil War.
Schmidt said while many people have voiced concerns about erasing history, she and Douglas have thoroughly studied iconoclasm, the practice of destroying symbols and pieces of art, and have had thoughtful conversations about how to handle this.
“This is not something new that we’re doing here, but it’s something that we’re doing in a very deliberate, thoughtful way,” Schmidt said. “And in this case, we’re doing it because we want to have our public symbols be in conformity with our professed values. We say that we care about multiracial democracy, right? These statues say otherwise.”