The city of Charlottesville, Va., removed a statue of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on Saturday, toppling symbols that were at the center of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017.
The statues will remain on city property until the city council decides what to do with them. Ten groups have expressed interest in the statues, according to a statement from the city.
"Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Va., and America, grapple with the sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain," Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said as the crane neared the Lee monument, the Associated Press reported.
The removals were set in motion by a 2016 petition started by a local high school student. The city council voted to take the statues down early the next year, but that action was delayed by a legal challenge that was ultimately rejected by the Virginia Supreme Court this April.
The statues of Lee and Jackson — and threats to remove them — served as a rallying cry for the far right in the summer of 2017. The tension spilled into violence in the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right Rally as neo-Nazis clashed with counter protestors. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man drove into a crowd of pedestrians. Dozens of others were injured in that attack and other violence.
Another, taller statue of Lee remains standing in Richmond, Virginia's capital., awaiting a final judgment in a separate legal challenge. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered the state-owned statue removed as soon as the case is resolved. Four other Confederate statues that lined the city's iconic Monument Avenue were taken down last summer amid racial justice protests.
Charlottesville's statues of Lee and Jackson were erected in the early 1920s with large ceremonies that included Confederate veteran reunions, parades and balls. At one event during the 1921 unveiling of the Jackson statue, children formed a living Confederate flag on the lawn of a school down the road from Vinegar Hill, a prominent Black neighborhood. The Jackson statue was placed on land that had once been another prosperous Black neighborhood.
Their erection coincided with a push across the South to valorize the Confederacy and suppress Black communities, according to Sterling Howell, programs coordinator with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.
"This was at the height of Jim Crow segregation, at the height of lynchings in American history," he said. "There was a clear statement that they weren't welcome."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's been nearly four years since white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Of course, one person was killed and dozens wounded when a driver sympathetic to the cause of the white supremacists rammed his car into counterprotesters. Today, crews moved in to take the statue of Lee down, along with one of Stonewall Jackson. Ben Paviour of member station VPM joins us now from Charlottesville. Ben, thanks so much for being with us.
BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And tell us about the scene today, if you can.
PAVIOUR: Well, the work crew made pretty quick work of Lee. He was taken down. The statue was taken down in about an hour. I covered statue removals a lot in Richmond last year, and this was by far the sort of fastest and smoothest removal I've seen. Lee was loaded onto the back of a long truck and sent off to city property. They've turned to do the same with the Jackson statue down the block. This is a hundred-year-old statue. There's some potent symbolism here. And spectators and media are watching from across the street.
SIMON: Any protests you've seen?
PAVIOUR: Not that I've seen. It's really been a tranquil scene - a few hundred people milling around, you know, filming the scene, stopping by on their morning walks or dog walks. I saw one man painting watercolor. One of the people here was Zyahna Bryant, and she led a petition to take these statues down in 2016 when she was a student at Charlottesville High School. She says it's important to celebrate this win, but...
ZYAHNA BRYANT: The systemic work is much longer, and it's going to take much more work. And that's what has to come after this. Otherwise, it's just an empty, symbolic gesture.
PAVIOUR: These statues came down on the watch of Mayor Nikuyah Walker, the first Black woman to hold that post in Charlottesville. She's a bit of a controversial figure here, but she's been very forceful on the need for Charlottesville to address structural racism.
SIMON: Ben, of course, there was a lot of criticism of police and local authorities not reacting in time to prevent deadly violence four years ago. What's been different this time?
PAVIOUR: Unlike that rally, there was just very little notice for this takedown. The city didn't officially announce it until yesterday. But there clearly was a lot of preparation that went into this. There's fences up, road closures, some police presence, but not a ton that I've seen so far.
SIMON: And any indication why they decided to take the statues down now, this weekend?
PAVIOUR: It's a good question because the city council voted to take these down in 2017, but then they got tied up in legal battles that were only resolved in April when the Virginia Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing them to come down. And since then, city council took a few procedural votes, including one Wednesday that set aside money for this. But as far as the exact timing today, you know, that's still unclear.
SIMON: And the statues - what happens now?
PAVIOUR: They're going to be stored on a secure location on city property. Beyond that, 10 different groups have expressed interest in taking the statues, so city council could decide to give it to one of them or destroy it entirely, although there's some debate around the legality of that second option.
SIMON: Ben Paviour of member station VPM in Charlottesville, Va. Ben, thanks so much for being with us.
PAVIOUR: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF RED HOUSE PAINTERS SONG, "SONG FOR A BLUE GUITAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.