Charlottesville City Council Considers Removal of Lee's Statue in Lee Park

Apr 20, 2016

It was standing room only at a recent city council meeting in Charlottesville where the debate over whether or not to remove the Robert E. Lees statue in Lee Park continued. WMRA's Sefe Emokpae went to the meeting and spoke to leaders on both sides of the controversial issue. 

On a Monday night, dozens of people have come to city council chambers in Charlottesville.

[applause]

The issue at hand... the Robert E. Lee Statue in Lee Park.

[The Lee Statue is a registered historic landmark. Is this designation meaningless to the council?]

Some are asking for the statue's removal.

[I would argue that this was a memorial that was about, among other things, reaffirming white supremacy.]

While others are demanding that it stay in place.

[When we forget history, it can be repeated.]

Charlottesville Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy is leading effort against the statue. He says he's looking to have community conversations about possible solutions to remove Lee's statue as well as re-name the park. On Monday, he and his fellow council members considered the appointment of a commission to discuss possible courses of action for all the confederate statutes and monuments throughout the city.

WES BELLAMY: "Personally I feel that this statue does not represent what the City of Charlottesville is all about. When I think of the City of Charlottesville I think of a very inclusive community and while I think that this statue does have a place in history, it does not have a place here in Charlottesville. In order for us to be able to move forward, we need to remove the statue and make sure that everyone feels inclusive here at this park."

Bellamy argues General Lee has no direct ties to the city of Charlottesville. He also says in addition to the general's background with slavery... more currently, the circumstances surrounding how and when the statue went up could be considered less than pleasant towards African-Americans in Charlottesville at the time.

BELLAMY: "There were some people based on the research that I've seen known as the Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats have had an affiliation to the Klan. I've also seen some information that the Ku Klux Klan may have had a very, very big rally in the City of Charlottesville two weeks before the statue was dedicated. I think it's plausible to believe that this statue was placed here during a time where racial tension was very high. I think the proximity to the statue and how close it is to Vinegar Hill also is looking to send a message."

To take matters one step further, Bellamy says he's heard first-hand accounts of racially motivated incidents taking place in or around the park.

BELLAMY: "When I've heard stories from people across the community, I mean I've heard stories from grandmothers and aunts and uncles and community members when they've told me that they've been spat on just for walking by this park. I've had someone tell me how they had a brother who had his face cut just for walking by the park or walking inside."

But, still, many in the Charlottesville community are strongly against any action to the statue. Teresa Kay Lam is a native of Charlottesville. When she heard the news that council would consider the statue's removal, she began a petition opposing the move... a petition that's now been signed more than 7,300 times. Lam says her ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and like many who signed her petition, she greatly values the history that Lee represents.

TERESA KAY LAM: "I have respect for the opposition and how they feel when they see it but to me Lee doesn't represent slavery and segregation. He represents a man who stood by his ideals, fighting for the state of Virginia, for state rights. That's what I see when I see that statue."

Lam calls Lee misunderstood and says despite Bellamy's claims, history shows that Lee did stand for inclusion.

LAM: "Lee tried to bring our country back together, he tried to heal that rift that was caused by the war. If they understood Lee the man it would help this situation a whole lot."

But Bellamy disagrees and catapulted by a petition to remove the statue started by a local high school student, he says the time to act is now.

BELLAMY:  "Being that we have the legal precedent and the authority to be able to do so then we need to open up and have this conversation to figure out what needs to happen with this statue and again we're not disrespecting the statue or disrespecting history, we want to place it somewhere where it can be more appreciated."

For WMRA News, I'm Sefe Emokpae.