A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was hoisted from its prominent site in Charlottesville, Virginia, and moved to storage on Saturday, years after its impending removal became a rallying point for white supremacists and inspired their 2017 violent rally that saw a woman to were killed and dozens injured.
Work to remove the statue began early Saturday morning. Crews also removed a statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
Dozens of spectators lined the blocks surrounding the park and cheers erupted as the Lee statue was lifted from the pedestal. There was a visible police presence, with streets closed to traffic by fences and heavy trucks.
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker gave a speech to reporters and observers as the crane approached the monument.
“Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia and America grapple with the sin of destroying black people for economic gain,” Walker said.
The removal of the images follows years of contention, community fear and lawsuits. A long, tortuous legal battle, coupled with changes to a state law protecting war memorials, had held up the removal for years.
The removal of the statues of Lee and Jackson on Saturday came after violence erupted during the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester, died in the violence, sparking a debate in the US on racial equality — further fueled by now-former President Donald Trump’s insistence that “the blame was on both sides”.
The work seemed smooth and fairly easy as couples, families with small children, and activists watched from the surrounding streets. The crowd sang and cheered intermittently as the workers made progress. Music floated down the street as a few musicians played hymns from a church near the statue of Lee.
There were at least a handful of opponents of the removal, including a man who harassed the mayor after her speech, but there was no visible, organized presence of protesters.
Ralph Dixon, a 59-year-old black man born and raised in Charlottesville, captured the move on Saturday morning with a camera around his neck.
Dixon said that as a school-age child, he was taken to the park where the Lee statue was located.
Students told he was a ‘great person’
“All the teachers, my teachers at least, were always talking about what an amazing person this was,” he said.
Dixon said his understanding of Lee’s legacy and the statue’s message evolved as he matured. He said it was important to consider the context of the Jim Crow era in which the statue was erected and said that, especially after Heyer’s death, there was no reason for the statue to remain.
“It had to happen,” he said.
After the Lee statue disappeared, both the workers and the crowd moved to a park about two blocks away to remove the Jackson statue. It took nearly an hour after a crane lifted the statue from its pedestal to place the piece on a truck and secure it. But instead of dwindling, the crowd grew, many waiting intently to watch it be dragged away.
“It’s quite a day. It’s just a sense of relief to see that image dragged back and forth in history where it belongs,” said Rabbi Tom Gutherz of nearby Beth Israel Congregation after the truck carrying the Jackson- monument drove away. .
Only the statues, not their stone pedestals, were removed on Saturday. They are kept in a safe place until the city council makes a final decision on what to do with them. Under state law, the city was required to solicit parties interested in taking the images during a listing period that ended Thursday. It received 10 responses to its request.
Steven Rousseau is a Canadian from the Saguenay region of Quebec who oversees the project for a company that awarded the contract to remove the monuments.
Each monument weighs “between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds,” he said in a telephone interview with Radio-Canada Friday night.
Jim Henson, who lives in nearby Barboursville, said Saturday he witnessed a “historic” event. He said he didn’t have a strong personal opinion on the Confederate monuments issue, but he thought Charlottesville was glad the saga was coming to an end.
“Good vibes, good vibes, good energy,” he said.
The most recent takedown action targeting the Lee memorial began in 2016, thanks in part to a petition started by a black high school student, Zyahna Bryant.
“To the young people out there, I hope this empowers you to speak out about the issues that matter and take charge of your own cities and communities,” said Bryant, who is now a student. at the University of Virginia, against the mob before the removal work began.
“No platform for white supremacy. No platform for racism. And no platform for hate.”
A statue depicting Sacagawea and explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was also removed on Saturday, which was criticized for portraying the Native American guide and interpreter who some believe was submissive and weak.