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Jefferson School proposes melting Lee statue to transform into public art

A proposal submitted by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center could transform Charlottesville’s statue — and collective memory — of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The proposal, submitted to City Council and City Manager Chip Boyles on Oct. 15, outlines a plan 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 gifted to the city for installation on public land.

“This is an opportunity, number one, to create a methodology for the local area to think about its public spaces,” said Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in the city.

“And then number two, at the national level, to create a roadmap for other communities that are interested in thinking about the same things that we’re being forced to think about.”

As cities across the country have taken down statues of Confederate leaders who fought against the U.S. and in favor of enslavement, few have known what to do with the statues.

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 proposal made national headlines, including the Huffington Post and Harper’s Bazaar.

The proposed project, entitled Swords Into Plowshares, received almost 30 letters of support from organizations and individuals; including Del. Sally Hudson, The Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, the Equal Justice Initiative, Charlottesville Black Arts Collective, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, descendants of Monticello’s enslaved community and members of the former Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, among others.

The name comes from biblical passage Micah 4:3: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

“The idea that a community could take the implements of war and turn them into plowshares or implements of social good is really what’s behind this. So, when we think about the project, it is about transformation, taking something that is symbolically traumatic and turning it into something that responds to the cultural values of Charlottesville,” Douglas said.

According to the proposal, the Jefferson School is prepared to remove the Lee statue from the city storage property located on Avon Street Extended immediately, and has made an agreement with a foundry that will pick up the Lee statue from its current location and transport it to its facilities where the statue will be further disassembled and reconstituted as ingots. The ingots will be stored until the time comes to repurpose them as an art medium. A sculpture studio has agreed to pick up the granite from city property and transport it to their facilities.

Douglas did not share the names of the contractors but said any melting process would be private to prevent incitement of protests or violence, as well as for public safety.

“Just know that the entire process has been figured out,” she said.

In January 2022, the Jefferson School plans to inaugurate a six-month series of community dialogues and meetings facilitated by Frank Dukes and colleagues at UVa’s Institute for Engagement + Negotiation. Dukes played a key role in mediating the Montpellier Board’s recent shift to parity with its descendant community and led community engagement as a member of the design team for UVa’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.

The process will consist of an extensive conversation with the community in traditional and non-traditional sites including the Jefferson School, churches, local schools, assisted living facilities, public libraries, cafés, beauty salons and barber shops. Outreach will also occur virtually to ensure inclusion of community members with limited access to other sites.

Following these sessions, the Jefferson School will compile the results of their findings to create a guiding document to be presented to the community by Fall 2022.

In Winter 2022, it 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.

“Our goal is for the jury to announce an artist or artists by 2024, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Lee statue’s installation. They will be invited to an artist residency hosted at Visible Records, an artist-run gallery and studio space in Charlottesville. Ideally, the new art piece will be completed and installed before the 10-year anniversary of the Summer of Hate in 2027,” the proposal says.

Douglas said the idea for the project has been in the works even prior to the removal of the Confederate statues in July. She said a lot of the thinking around the project and how the statues should be re-contextualized was triggered by Albemarle County removing its Confederate statue and sending it to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

“The notion that you could put a Confederate statue in front of a courthouse, that is meant to be a space of civic use for everyone in a community in some way antithetical to this idea of civil rights … So to the extent that Albemarle County removed it from there, that should be applauded,” Douglas said.

“But the idea then that you could take it and then send it to a battlefield where it could be appropriately re-contextualized … is in some ways impossible. The very figure of that object identifies it as a Confederate soldier … it won’t ever be contextualized in a way that will remove all of the additional cultural codes and baggage that comes along with that mess.”

The way Douglas sees it, melting down the Lee statue is a way of preventing further amplification of an image that has become a rallying cry for white supremacists and Neo-Nazis. The deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally on August 12, 2017 was partially held in front of the Lee statue in protest of City Council’s vote to remove the sculpture. The proposal describes the Lee statue as “an international lightning rod of white supremacy.”

“Charlottesville should not be in the business of taking moral trash, as we like to say, and moving it to other locations where in other people who had been in one way or another disenfranchised as a consequence of the system that then would give rise to objects like that in the first place,” Douglas said.

“Recontextualization is not enough. Even taken from its pedestal and removed from its central location in downtown Charlottesville, the social codes engendered by the Lee statue will allow it to remain an icon of violent white supremacy wherever it is placed,” the proposal says.

Several of the community members and organizations that wrote letters of support echoed this sentiment.

“It’s important to have public art that expresses inclusion. The Lee statue never did, and it never will, wherever it’s placed next. A smelter is the best place for it. Our city would be better served by using its bronze for something new that takes our community in a forward direction,” the Charlottesville Black Arts Collective wrote. “Transforming trauma into beautiful art is a powerful idea, one that deserves to become reality.”

The Memory Project at UVa’s Democracy Initiative, Open Society Foundations and Virginia Humanities have already pledged funding to the project totaling $590,000. Douglas says the project is estimated to cost $1.1 million. This includes funding for a project manager.

While the Jefferson School did not submit a monetary offer to the city for ownership of the statue, it would assume all financial responsibility for the project with no monetary obligation from the city.

Immediately following City Council’s vote to remove the Confederate statues in June, the city put out a Request for Statements of Interest from entities interested in ownership of one or both of the statues. Dozens of entities and individuals responded. The Jefferson School was the first to submit an expression of interest the night of the vote.

Douglas said she never heard back from the city about the submission. On Sept. 22, the city put out another request soliciting full proposals that would specifically re-contextualize the statues rather than venerating them, acknowledging their link to white supremacy. The Jefferson School responded with its full proposal.

Five proposals, including the Jefferson School’s, were submitted to Boyles by the Oct. 15 deadline. The Jefferson School is the only local entity and one of two Virginia entities that submitted proposals.

The other proposals were submitted by the Ratcliffe Foundation in Russell County; the LAXART museum in Los Angeles; the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia; and a private citizen in Utopia, Texas.

The Jefferson School’s proposal is the only one that directly incorporates input and involvement in the process from descendants of enslaved laborers. Douglas said that it is key to center descendants in the process.

“The reason why people can say, ‘why can’t you move on and get over it,’ is because they believe that the implications of enslavement have been solved as a consequence of the Civil Rights Movement, which in fact it has not,” Douglas said. She noted that the Racial Integrity Act passed in 1924, the same year the Lee statue was erected.

“In reality, this is a service community and it’s a service community occupied by largely by Black and brown people. To consider the notion that you would leave the descendants … There are quite a few of them who still live in this community, continue to stay here and cause this community to thrive in one way or another … There’s no way that you cannot begin your conversation with Native people and Black and brown people. That is why they are centered in this project,” Douglas said.

Gayle Jessup White, a descendant of Monticello’s enslaved community and author of “Reclamation: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and a Descendant’s Search for Her Family‘s Lasting Legacy,” discussed this priority in her letter of support.

“Engagement from the African American community in the project would be paramount, as Blacks were intentionally excluded from the conversation about public space when the statue was erected in 1924. The [Jefferson School] has the experience and the community‘s trust to successfully complete the ‘Swords into Plowshares’ initiative, having for years been at the forefront of discussions about systemic racism,” she wrote.

City Council has until January 13, 2022 to consider the responses to the solicitation for offers based on the stipulations of the request. No such vote has been scheduled yet.

Douglas said she hopes City Council and the community at large see the value in the expertise from the organizations backing this project and how powerful it could be. Douglas co-chairs the UVa President’s Commission on Slavery and the Age of Segregation. She sits on the Monticello African American Advisory Committee and a state commission to study the impact of slavery on the lives of formerly enslaved people.

“Simply put, our community could not have navigated these last five years without [the Jefferson School’s] leadership,” Hudson wrote in her letter of support. “We have achieved broad consensus that the statues must be removed because of their steadfast work. Now is the time to trust those same leaders to guide us in this next era of our journey.”

Douglas sees this as an historic opportunity.

“Where we sit today, this is an opportunity, what we have the expertise to do. I don’t do this lightly,” Douglas said. “Those people who are funding us are funding us because they believe that we are engaged in something that has national repercussions.”


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