On Tuesday morning, Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy held a press conference in Lee Park asking City Council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The monument has been a source of controversy in the community, exemplifying the longstanding debate over the continued existence of Confederate symbols in Charlottesville. Nearly 100 protesters and supporters gathered at the event to voice frustration over this hotly contested issue.
In his speech, Bellamy expressed disappointment that the city government still allows the statue to stand in a public park. He recounted America’s dark history of the Civil War and how Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, fought to preserve slavery. In a plea to the public, Bellamy emphasized the opportunity for community to stand together and affect meaningful change. The vice mayor noted that the statute has symbolized many different things in its 90-year history, but believes local leaders need to take action when anyone in the community feels uncomfortable or disrespected. Bellamy was joined in his remarks by local civil rights activists, including M. Rick Turner, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville branch of the NAACP, and Amy-Sarah Marshall, founder of Charlottesville Pride Community Network.
The statue, commissioned in 1924, is one of four local Confederate monuments receiving criticism. It joins the statue of Stonewall Jackson in Jackson Park, the Confederate soldier outside of the Albemarle County Courthouse, and the bronze infantryman in Soldier’s cemetery as a hot topic of debate. Despite years of animosity toward these divisive figures, explicit community discussion about them did not begin until Charlottesville City Council first considered their removal in 2012. This ignited immediate controversy, as both supporters and opponents held strong opinions about how these monuments represent Virginia’s history.
Opponents of the statue have long voiced distress about the emotions these statues conjure. A change.org petition has been circulating throughout the community, requesting that City Council change the name of Lee Park and remove the statue of its namesake. The petition, started by Charlottesville High School student Zyahna Bryant, has 494 signatures and counting.
“When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery,” Byant writes in her petition. “Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind. As a teenager in Charlottesville that identifies as black, I am offended every time I pass it. I am calling on city council to rename Lee park and remove the statue, and I encourage you to do the same.”
The statue, however, has many fervent supporters who showed up in droves to protest Bellamy’s speech. These community members believe that Bellamy is disregarding the historical significance of the monument and ignoring the general’s importance to the state of Virginia. Statue supporters waved confederate flags and signs with slogans such as “Let Lee Stand” and “You cannot change history, but you can learn from it.”
While the protest was peaceful, observers noted that tensions ran high and often deteriorated into screaming matches between attendees. Third year student Michael Cotumaccio attended the rally as a spectator.
“It was civil enough, but I heard jeers coming from the crowd and some chants of ‘all lives matter’ throughout,” Cotumaccio said. “As a history major, I definitely hold the opinion that Lee’s laurels as a commander and gentleman are forever tarnished by the institution he so ‘valiantly’ fought for…it’s the equivalent of putting up a statue of Erwin Rommel in Germany. He may have been just a battlefield commander, but he was a nazi.”
After the rally, local resident Elliott Harding made a counter-petition on change.org to keep the statue in Lee Park. Harding calls on City Council to not only preserve General Lee, but to also erect a monument for late civil rights leader and UVa professor Julian Bond, who died last August.
“A memorial for Mr. Bond would serve as a unique contrast to whatever legacy General Lee left on racial tensions,” the petition reads. “By converting Lee Park into Lee-Bond Park, or creating some other alternative, the City could send a clear message that history is not to be forgotten, but progress is to be celebrated.”
Charlottesville City Council announced Monday that it plans to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Confederate memorials. This task force, which is to be created in the next thirty days, will engage with the public to assess all available options and find an appropriate solution.