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Black history museum to face trial over plans for Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument

The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park.
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park was removed on Sept. 8, 2021. What happens to it next is the subject of a lawsuit. (File photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

A circuit court judge on Monday set a February trial in a lawsuit to stop a museum in Charlottesville from melting down a monument to Robert E. Lee that was removed from city property in 2021. 

The bronze statue stood in a Charlottesville park near the city’s downtown mall, before city council voted to donate the monument to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The organization, which opened in 2013, plans to transform the Confederate monument into a piece of public art

Two organizations that unsuccessfully sought ownership of the 26-foot-tall statue last year sued the city and the Jefferson School to invalidate the council’s decision.  

Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School, met with supporters outside the courthouse before the Monday hearing.  

“We shouldn’t even be here today,” Douglas said. “We should have just been able to do what we wanted to do because it’s what we decided for our city.” 

Hashim Davis, an Albemarle High School teacher read a quote from writer and social commentator James Baldwin.  

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced,” he read to a group of about 50 people outside Charlottesville Circuit Court, just a few blocks from where the Lee statue stood. He told supporters that Swords into Plowshares — the Jefferson School’s proposal for the Lee monument — is a demonstration of fortitude. 

“It is an act of dogged determination, and this goes beyond the desecration of statues, but rather this is about consecration of our shared history,” he said. “This is about actively and courageously facing our future.” 

The groups suing want to preserve the statue and claim the process to acquire the Lee monument violated state antitrust laws.

Last fall, the city sought interested parties to take ownership of the monument. Dozens of organizations expressed interest, but the city settled on the Jefferson School. Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation, which operates the Ellenbrook Museum in Rosedale, said the city doesn’t have the authority to donate a Confederate monument that they know will be destroyed. 

The organizations asked the court to require the Jefferson School to publicly disclose the current location of the statue, as well as whether it's been disassembled or damaged in any way. The court agreed to give plaintiffs limited access but declined to allow the statue’s whereabouts to be made public.  

An attorney for the Trevilian Station and Ratcliffe foundations declined to answer questions after the hearing. Requests for comment via email on Monday were not returned by the end of the day. 

Paul G. McIntire, a University of Virginia graduate, paid for the equestrian statue to be designed and built. Unveiled in 1924, the 12-by-8-foot monument is considered to be the impetus of 2017’s Unite the Right rally, which brought hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis to Charlottesville and led to the death of activist Heather Heyer.  

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.