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'Lunatics, simpletons and corporate ghosts': Group demands dismissal of Lee statue case

After the recent withdrawal of a fellow plaintiff, the leader of the remaining group challenging the city of Charlottesville’s late 2001 gift of its statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee testified Tuesday that he sent 15 communications in an effort to pay $10,000 for the statue.

“And you never received a single response?” asked Ralph Main, representing the sole remaining plaintiff the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation.

“No correspondence or call or anything,” testified Gerald Harlow, the president of foundation which oversees the Gordonsville-area site of the largest all-cavalry engagement of the Civil War.

Christopher Tate, representing the winning recipient of the statue, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, accused Harlow of overstating both his correspondence and his foundation’s claims that it was unfairly hindered.

“They weren’t cut out,” argued Tate. “They were lazy.”

Tate told the court that Harlow overcounted his letters by construing the same message he sent to each of the five members of the Charlottesville City Council as five letters. Tate also placed a law student on the stand to read Harlow’s earlier deposition about relying on radio reports to get information.

“Trevilian never submitted a legally recognizable offer to obtain the statue despite having every opportunity to do so,” Tate argued.

“We were kept in the dark,” said Harlow’s deposition. “No one from the city notified me of the procedure.”

Tate alleged that the city received offers from an insane asylum, from an individual who handwrote his plea and from the Ratcliffe Foundation, the battlefield foundation’s former fellow litigant whose lapsed corporate status led it to quit the lawsuit earlier this month.

“If lunatics, simpletons and corporate ghosts could figure it out, then what’s Trevilian’s excuse?” asked Tate.

This was just one of the disputes aired in the nearly three-hour hearing in the ground-floor courtroom of the Charlottesville Circuit Court on Tuesday.

A dramatic moment came when Braxton Puryear, a lawyer for the plaintiff, alleged that his side deserved fresh photographs of the Lee statue in its current state.

“We have information from a couple of different sources that the statue has been destroyed,” said Puryear.

The allegation brought opposing counsel Tate to his feet.

“That statement does not accord with anything I’ve heard from my client, and so I think it’s false,” said Tate.

“We want assurances,” countered Puryear, “of the condition and location of the monument.”

Tate urged the judge to quickly convene a private meeting for Puryear to divulge his alleged sources, but Judge Paul Peatross declined that huddle due to Tate’s assertion that his client, the Jefferson School, has not reported any change to the bronze pieces. In January, a lawyer representing the city of Charlottesville asserted that the statue has been disassembled but not melted.

Melting is, however, a component of the Jefferson School’s plan to transform the equestrian statue from what many see as its original symbolism: a nod to “Lost Cause” mythology and a paean to white supremacy.

The Jefferson School has called its plan to recast the bronze Lee into something more inclusive Swords Into Plowshares, borrowing a Biblical call to convert weapons into agricultural implements.

“We’ve been very patient,” said Tate. “Our property rights have been affected.”

The plaintiff, meanwhile, sought permission to file an amended complaint due to a recent Virginia Supreme Court case that would reinvigorate its contention that the city may have violated the Freedom of Information Act when it advertised the Dec. 7, 2001, vote to give the Jefferson School the statue.

But the bulk of Tuesday’s hearing focused on Tate’s arguments supporting his recent filing of a legal document called a “plea in bar,” which would dismiss the lawsuit and let his client move on with Swords Into Plowshares. Tate argued that any finding that the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation has a right to sue would be reversed on appeal.

“I’m not prepared to make a decision today,” said the judge. “I honestly can’t tell you how I’m going to decide.”

The judge gave no timetable for the arrival of his decision.


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