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No ruling in pretrial hearing over Charlottesville's Lee monument

An oxidized copper statue of a person riding a horse
Roberto Roldan
VPM News File
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park was removed on Sept. 8, 2021.

The statue was removed from city property in 2021 and donated to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

A Tuesday pretrial hearing in a lawsuit regarding the fate of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument ended without a ruling. Instead, a Charlottesville Circuit Court judge will review more information related to the suit.

The Lee statue was removed from city property in 2021 and donated by the city to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. The organization intends to smelt it and use the material for a future art installation, as part of its “Swords Into Plowshares” project.

“Our intent is to move forward, and this event is not deferring our actions in the project at large,” Andrea Douglas, the center’s executive director, told reporters in a press briefing following the hearing.

Before the statue’s donation, several proposals were submitted to the city for its ownership — including bids from the Tazewell-based Ratcliffe Foundation and the Louisa County–based Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation.

Both organizations sued the City of Charlottesville and the Jefferson School, claiming the city had violated antitrust laws by donating the monument.

The Ratcliffe Foundation, which submitted a $50,000 bid for the statue in October 2021, was the only plaintiff present at Tuesday’s hearing. The hearing focused on a motion from the foundation’s representatives to substitute the “new” Ratcliffe Foundation — a 501c(3) nonprofit organization — in the lawsuit for the former Ratcliffe Foundation, a corporation.

The organization lost its corporate standing in 2015 after missing a paperwork deadline and has continued as a nonprofit since. However, its board of directors was unaware of the lapse until filing the lawsuit.

Attorneys representing the city and the Jefferson School argued that the Ratcliffe Foundation had no standing to bid for the statues as, at the time of its proposal, the corporate foundation did not exist on paper.

“The issue, from our perspective, is there was never such thing as [the original Ratcliffe Foundation], it didn’t exist. But at the end, if you couldn’t state a claim in the first place, you shouldn’t be able to put in a new entity, whether that entity can state a claim or not,” Christopher Tate, one of the attorneys representing the Jefferson School, said during the press briefing.

The Ratcliffe Foundation, which runs the Ellenbrook Museum in southwest Virginia, had planned to create a park with hiking trails as a home for Confederate monuments being removed across the U.S.Charlottesville’s Lee statue was envisioned as the first to be installed in the park.

While Fred Harman, a Tazewell attorney and Ratcliffe board member, testified during the hearing that the organization intended for the monuments to be displayed in a different, less controversial context — although specific plans had not been made. City attorneys argued that the Ratcliffe Foundation’s proposal did not meet one of the requirements: that the statue’s new stated purpose must reject pro-Confederate narratives.

Representatives for the Ratcliffe Foundation were not available for comment following the hearing.

Tate countered the claims for both plaintiffs during the press briefing: “I would simply say we don’t believe either plaintiff submitted a legally binding offer.”

A trial date has yet to be scheduled.

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