Charlottesville African American museum will melt down Robert E. Lee statue for new public art piece

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The 1,100-pound bronze statue of Robert E. Lee that was at the center of a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., will soon be melted down and repurposed into a new public artwork.

A proposal by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center was accepted Tuesday by the Charlottesville City Council. Titled “Swords Into Ploughshares,” the project will see Lee’s statue re-created into an entirely new form following input from the community.

The center’s executive director, Andrea Douglas, said in a video that the goal of the project 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.”

In February 2017, the city of Charlottesville voted to remove statues of Lee and Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson. In protest, a group of white supremacists organized an Aug. 11-12 rally called “Unite the Right,” which saw white nationalists marching through Lee Park and the campus of the University of Virginia chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”

White supremacists, holding torches, take part in a nighttime march.

White supremacists in a torchlit march the night before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Violent clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters unfolded on Aug. 12. James Alex Fields Jr., who was protesting the removal of the Lee statue, rammed his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring others.

In November, a jury ordered 17 white nationalist leaders and their organizations to pay more than $26 million in damages to nine people who filed suit over the incident.

As with monuments erected across the South in the decades following the North’s victory in the Civil War, the statue of Lee was a gift to the city. Commissioned by Paul McIntire, a Virginia stockbroker, in 1917 and completed in 1924, it “highlighted a particular ideology that we no longer share,” Douglas, the museum director, said.

The new artwork, in contrast, will seek input from a wide range of citizens in the community.

“It’s taking something that was static and molding and melding it into a new substance, and then having a community dialogue with an artist about how to transform the material into something new,” Jalane Schmidt, director of the Memory Project at the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative, said in the video.

Workers use chains to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Workers remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., on July 10. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The bronze of Lee is currently being stored in an undisclosed location. Statues of Confederate war heroes have fallen across the South in recent years. On Monday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said the state would remove the 40-foot granite pedestal in Richmond where another bronze of Lee had stood until it was removed in 2020.

Though debate still rages about whether to rename schools, parks and streets named after those who fought for the Confederacy, Charlottesville is hoping that melting down Lee and creating something new with that bronze will help heal very old wounds.

“Our community will confront white supremacy with creativity. Beauty will heal the ugliness of the past,” Schmidt said. 

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