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The statues are down but the work isn’t done: Councilors discuss Charlottesville’s path forward

Charlottesville’s years-long efforts to remove its Confederate statues finally came to fruition in 2021 after a court ruled the city could take the statues down, and cranes took them away in July. And in December, City Council voted to give its statue of Robert E. Lee to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to be melted and turned into a new work of public art, and gave the statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to a museum in Los Angeles for an exhibit on Lost Cause propaganda.

But community members and city councilors said here is more work for the city to do when it comes to racial equity in the city. The way they see it, the statues were a symbol of a bigger crisis.

“Yes, you have to remove Confederate statues, but we also need to remove statutes that are continuing wealth inequality, racial inequality and I think that’s the most important thing,” said councilor Michael Payne.

The city has been trying to remove its confederate statues since 2017, when the City Council first voted to remove the Lee statue. Zyahna Bryant, then a student at Charlottesville High School, started a petition in 2016 for City Council to remove the statues. Then-councilors Wes Bellamy and Kristin Szakos spearheaded Council’s work to remove the statues.

The vote to remove the statue triggered deadly violence when neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered at the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 to protest removal of the statue. The riots resulted in the death of activist Heather Heyer, and dozens sustained serious injuries. In November 2021, a jury ordered rally organizers to pay more than $26 million in damages to survivors who filed a lawsuit.

In April 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia sided with the city in its appeal of a Charlottesville Circuit Court ruling that found that the City Council violated state code when it voted to remove the statues. The court ruled in part that a previous law preventing the removal of war monuments did not apply to statues erected before 1997.

In July 2021, crowds gathered to watch the removal of Lee and Jackson, as well as the removal of the statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Shoshone interpreter Sacajawea. While the day was jubilant for activists who had toiled for years to see this day, they agreed this was only the first step.

“We are standing in a park where the city is still refusing to address systemic issues,” Bryant, now a student at the University of Virginia, said the day of the removal. “… The work of removing the statues is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much work left to do to address affordable housing, to address policing [and] to address the wealth gap.”

Work to be done

While the removal of statues was arguably the biggest action Charlottesville’s City Council took in 2021, councilors say they know there needs to be more done in the fight for equity in the city.

“I think that we need to have conversation that moves to action,” said incoming councilor Juandiego Wade. “I think conversation is very important to have, but dialogue for the sake of dialogue without acting on it is really not going to move us forward.”

Councilor Lloyd Snook sees the statues being gone as an opportunity for the city to channel more energy and attention into pressing equity issues, such as affordable housing, improving all children’s access to a high-quality education and even seemingly minor issues such as remodeling the library.

“I think 2017 was a bell that keeps ringing in Charlottesville, and I hope that with the statues being gone, maybe the bell will at least quiet down. And one of the things about our truly loud bell is it drowns out everything else,” Snook said. “What’s absolutely critical is that we start moving forward on some of the affordable housing things that we’ve talked about.”

In November, the City Council voted to approve a new Future Land Use Map and Comprehensive Plan that prioritizes development of affordable housing. This is one of the first substantial steps the city has taken to address the city’s legacy of exclusionary racial covenants and redlining. While this is a major change, people who worked on the map say the city still needs to focus on committing funding for affordable housing.

“The greatest need is affordable housing, it will require sustained commitment on the city’s part, financial commitments, to make that happen,” Jenny Koch, project manager for Cville Plans Together, told The Daily Progress in November. “That will be an important part of actually seeing those affordable housing changes happen on the ground, specifically at the greatest needs.”

Payne agreed.

“What I think will be important in the new year is focusing on how do we build on the big policy changes we’ve already made? How do we effectively do the zoning right process? How do we identify the funding streams for $10 million a year in affordable housing? How do we get the funding and staff positions needed to develop and execute our climate action planning process?” Payne said.

Snook said the city also needs to consider equity issues that aren’t as obvious or may not have been on recent City Council agendas.

“Equity shows up in interesting places, if you think about it. One issue that is truly a matter of equity is the library. The library is where poor people can go to read, they don’t have to go buy a book someplace. We’ve got a lot of money that needs to be spent to fix up the library. We have no way to make that happen with our current budget. But the point is, that’s something that we have ignored for a long time in Charlottesville,” Snook said.

In an interview, incoming councilor Brian Pinkston identified two of the most pertinent equity issues in the city as affordable housing and reconfiguration of public schools. But he says the city needs to stabilize itself and dedicate funding to these projects if they’re going to succeed.

“The concern … is it feels a little like a bottleneck we’re going through right now. We have all of these things that we’ve identified, and now we need to push it through the bottleneck and that not only requires staff stability in the city government itself, it’s also going to require money,” Pinkston said.

In a live interview with Vinegar Hill Magazine and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Mayor Nikuyah Walker voiced concern that the incoming City Council may not further her mission of equity.

“I don’t know that I trust, or that I have hope, that we are going to continue the work. I’m debating about whether I still put pressure on it or whether I retreat to see if they’re willing to stay the course,” she said.

Walker did not respond to a request for an interview from The Daily Progress.

Diversity in city leadership

As Walker leaves her post as the first Black female mayor, the face of City Council is changing. The incoming City Council will choose a new mayor in the new year. Walker was the only person of color to serve on the most recent City Council, and now Wade will be the only person of color on the council.

“The fact that [Walker] is our first Black woman mayor is going to be inspirational to other young Black girls who will be able to see themselves in that place. These are incredibly important things,” Magill said.

Councilor Lloyd Snook said while he frequently disagreed with Walker on certain issues and approaches, he appreciated that she brought a unique perspective to the table.

“[Walker] and I are never going to look at things exactly the same way and I couldn’t claim to be someone who would see things through the same equity lens she does. We disagree in some ways about things like that, but I’ve always had a great deal of respect for her and awareness of just why she felt she was there,” Snook said.

Magill said it’s important that Charlottesville works to become a place where diverse candidates feel welcome to run for city office or apply for a city staff position. She says the city needs to address why someone may not feel welcome in the city government.

“We need to be elevating people, we need to be making sure that we’re looking around and saying ‘What is stopping somebody. Why?’” Magill said. “[If] I’m looking through all these candidates for a job, and none of them are anything but white or anything but male, why is that? Because we shouldn’t be having that now.”


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