The Confederate Statue Controversy:  What it Means for the Charlottesville Community

By Brianna Hamblin

News Editor

lee and travelerThe controversy on whether or not the statue of General Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville should remain standing has left the city divided.  Some residents believe that what the statue of the Confederate general symbolizes is hurtful, but others believe taking down the statue is disrespecting history.  Charlottesville also has a statue of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and two statues of southern soldiers from the Civil War that are under the same scrutiny as the Lee statue.

According to information given by the City of Charlottesville Virginia website on the History and Gardens of Lee Park, the land for Lee Park was given as a gift by Paul McIntire to the city of Charlottesville in 1917.  Henry Shrady began the creation of the sculpture but passed away in the middle of the project.  Leo Lentellli then took over the project.  The Robert E. Lee statue was presented to the city on May 21, 1924.  Paul McIntire had the area chapters of the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy plan the unveiling ceremony for the statue.  On that day, Lee’s great-great-granddaughter, Mary Walker Lee, pulled down the Confederate flag that was covering the sculpture to reveal it to the city.  Edwin A. Alderman, then-president of the University of Virginia, gave a speech at the ceremony.  Despite all of the celebration for the statue, General Lee has no historical ties to Charlottesville.

Vice-Mayor on the Charlottesville City Council Wes Bellamy has been pushing for City Council to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee.  He says that the statues were erected at a time where those in power in the city did not have the best interests of everyone who lived in Charlottesville.

“Several current residents have stated that they believe the statue was used as a psychological tool to show dominance of the majority over the minority during this time period,” Bellamy said.  “Subsequently, a large portion of city residents have refused to step foot in Lee Park due to what they believe the statue and park represent.  A disrespect to one group of people is a disrespect to all, and the city of Charlottesville has a responsibility to help all who dwell in the city feel welcomed, respected, and included.”

Dr. M. Rick Turner, President of the Charlottesville National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), is also one of the residents of Charlottesville who feels pain when he passes by Lee Park.

“It will always be painful,” Dr. Turner said.  “It’s not a proud heritage for anyone.  It stood for white resistance and white supremacy to the humanity and dignity to Black people.  An association with slavery, it will always be painful to Black people that understand what happened before and after the Civil War.”

On March 10, 2016, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill that prohibited the removal of war memorials, allowing the right for Confederate monuments to be removed in Virginia cities and counties.  Professor at the University of Virginia and Executive Director of University and Community Action for Racial Equity (UCARE) Dr. Frank Dukes seeks to help groups address issues like this one in order to strengthen communities.  Dukes believes that now that this veto has been implemented, the community has to take action.

Dukes said, “…now you have actual communities around the commonwealth who are saying, well what do we do now that we actually can do something with it, and is it okay to leave them?  So I don’t think I know yet what the right answer is, I do know that leaving them the way that they are is unacceptable.   The way that they are looks like that this is our public value; that we celebrate the people that lead the Confederacy, and we don’t.”  Dr. Dukes continued, “…those statues were never about honoring those people, they were about making a statement anyways, about white supremacy and black oppression at the time that they were erected.”

Community meetings have been held and will continue being held, discussing the issue of the statues.  Dr. Turner believes that African Americans, both young and old, community members, and University students have a duty to stand up.

“Stand up and say that I’m proud, defend that proud heritage of African American people,” Dr. Turner said.  “Any time there’s a protest, a peaceful protest, in regards to standing up, African American students need to be there.  Just their presence, they don’t have to say anything, just their presence is important…We don’t have the luxury of walking around blindly, with blinders on.  African American students have a responsibility for those who are going to be first-year students next year, and for those in high school, and every opportunity you get to share information with younger students, you got to do that.”

Mr. Bellamy says that Council is now looking for a Blue Ribbon Commission of Community Members to provide recommendations as to what the next step in the decision will be.  They hope to appoint this commission on May 18th.  For Mr. Bellamy, removal of the Lee statue is the clear answer to what is best for the community as a whole.

Mr. Bellamy said, “I personally believe in order for us to move forward as a community we need to show our community that this is not a city that belongs to “them” but a city that belongs to ‘all of us.’ In order to do this, symbols must be all inclusive. . . If we have tax paying citizens who are extremely offended by these symbols, then we have the responsibility to look at correcting the mistakes of the past.  This issue is bigger than the statues; it is about how we address the issues of race and inclusion within our community.”