It’s been a year since statues of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson stood in parks in downtown Charlottesville, but the controversy over the statues’ removal and fate has yet to be resolved.
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center obtained ownership of the Lee statue from the city in December, but ownership is now in court. Two other organizations that have requested ownership of the Lee statue, The Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation, on behalf of its subsidiary Ellenbrook Museum, are suing the city for giving the statue to JSAAHC.
Both allege the city violated the Freedom of Information Act, the Virginia Public Procurement Act and the state code when it awarded the Lee statue to JSAAHC in December. JSAAHC was originally named as a defendant when the lawsuit was initially filed, but has since been withdrawn. The foundations are represented by attorneys Ralph Main, Jock Yellott and S. Braxton Puryear, who also represented Charlottesville-area residents in a previous Monument Fund-backed lawsuit against the city over votes to remove Lee statues. and Jackson.
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City spokesman David Dillehunt said the city is not commenting on ongoing litigation.
Much of the lawsuit appears to be in response to JSAAHC’s intentions for the monument, titled the “Swords Into Plowshares” project, which includes a plan to melt down the statue and recast Lee’s brass ingots into a new work of art. art that reflects the Charlottesville community’s values of racial inclusion.
The plaintiffs claim that the melting down of the statue would specifically violate state law. In court filings, the plaintiffs say, “move a war memorial into a foundry furnace to [alteration] and destruction is not on the list of what is permitted.
Rich Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor and expert in constitutional law and local government law, said the lawsuit was “a little tricky.” It depends on how the court interprets the state statute that allowed the city to bring down the statues in the first place. The court will have to decide whether the city’s bidding process for the statues followed state law or violated it.
“If the court finds the city violated the law, then it can order that the statue be presumably returned to the city. The city still has the right under state law to do whatever it wishes within the bounds of the statute,” Schragger said.
However, that doesn’t mean the plaintiffs would get the statue.
“I understand that the plaintiffs demand that the law be given to them or preserved. I doubt this is a possibility of relief for them. The appropriate relief, if the plaintiff circuit decides that way, would be for the city to redo the bidding process and the city simply get the property back,” Schragger said.
Schragger said the process could take a long time, potentially one to two years, while it’s possible it could be completed sooner than that.
JSAAHC was not prohibited from melting the statue, however, said Andrea Douglas, Director of JSAAHC. Douglas said they were waiting for the end of the litigation to do so. Douglas declined to share the location of the statue due to security concerns. She said, however, that the JSAAHC moved quickly to dismantle the statue after it received the official deed of donation from the city in December and it was split into several pieces.
“The trial is yet another way to control and maintain white supremacy, no doubt about it,” Douglas said.
Schragger said it’s possible that such a lawsuit is a tactic on behalf of plaintiffs to discourage other jurisdictions from withdrawing their statutes.
“We’ve seen that these groups appear to be well funded and motivated, especially in a case where the outcome is still not a clear win for them,” Schragger said. “I think part of that strategy is to increase costs for cities and create political and legal barriers for other cities considering removing their statues.”
Beyond the lawsuit, Douglas said JSAAHC had received hate mail and threats, and had been the target of coordinated malware attacks. She said they were from parties trying to stop the center from raising money for the Swords into Plowshares project. Malware attacks were launched on both the JSAAHC website and the IndieGoGo campaign page, she said.
“There’s no kind of very public threat that’s been made, but our websites have been attacked. They’re trying to stop us from raising money around this project,” Douglas said. “They’re using tactics that are fundamentally against the will of Charlottesville. It is cyberstalking or cyberterrorism.”
“[Opponents to the project] see these things racially. As a result, you have to be ready,” she said. “These people aren’t afraid to kill black people.”
Despite the lawsuit and backlash, Swords into Plowshares has raised just under $700,000 and JSAAHC is continuing its public consultation process. The goal is to hear and gather ideas from as many community members as possible about what to do with the statue. Douglas said the trial allowed more time to gather that information.
Jalane Schmidt, director of UVa’s memory project, which is partnering with JSAAHC on the project, said they made an effort to reach a variety of ages and demographics throughout the process, including by getting ideas from school children.
“We’re getting feedback from young people because this whole process started with young people, and they’re the ones who are going to inherit these spaces,” Schmidt said, referring to Zyahna Bryant, who was a high school student when she started a petition. for the city to remove the statues.
Douglas said he’s heard various ideas from community members and artists interested in taking on the project, but a recurring theme is that people want new art to be interactive and contemplative. And it won’t necessarily be a statue or a stand in the space where Lee’s statue stood.
“It really comes down to what is the most appropriate object that expresses what Charlottesville believes is her desire,” Douglas said.
Lee’s statue isn’t the only statue in town under new ownership. The City Council voted unanimously in December to send the statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to LAXART in Los Angeles.
The exhibition is set to open in fall 2023 at LAXART and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary gallery. Entitled “MONUMENTS”, the exhibition will be accompanied by an important scientific publication and a solid list of public and educational programs.
The exhibition is funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Teiger Foundation, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Individual support is provided by Margaret Morgan and Wesley Phoa.
The exhibition will include other similar statues, all of which will be displayed alongside works of contemporary art to place the monuments in their social and historical context. The idea is to critique and confront the false narrative and lost cause ideology.
Walker said LAXART is loaning 15 statues and other exhibits from jurisdictions across the country, including Pittsburgh, Houston, Boston and Montgomery, Alabama.
Three statues from Richmond and a statue from Randolph College in Lynchburg join Stonewall Jackson in Charlottesville. LAXART reimbursed the City of Charlottesville $50,000 for the statue of Jackson, which is now owned and held by LAXART.
“We are always trying to understand what the beyond of these [statues] is. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Hamza Walker, director of LAXART. “We need to radically recontextualize these things, not just with a plaque.”
Walker said an artist LAXART works with, Bethany Collins, plans to use granite from the base of the Jackson statue to create a granite rose petal carpet.
The petals will honor the once-enslaved black women who began many of the earliest Memorial Day recognitions by laying rose petals at the graves of fallen Union soldiers.
“It’s a memorial to the very first commemorators,” Walker said. “Our proposal [to the city of Charlottesville] it was a transformation of these objects. And that’s perfect. For me, it’s a very nice gesture.
The exhibition will have other local connections. LAXART commissioned film artist and Charlottesville native Kevin Jerome Everson to create a cinematic portrayal of Richard Bradley, a black man who climbed a flagpole in front of San Francisco City Hall in 1984 to remove the Confederate flag which was displayed there.
As for the Jackson statue itself, LAXART is working with an artist to find the best way to display it.
“I’m looking forward to this project, this transformation. I don’t know what the artist is going to do, if she’s going to keep it intact in the news, if he’s going to use it in an installation, or if it is going to be reconfigured and melted down and transformed like this, so I’m very excited about this commission,” Walker said.