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Charlottesville judge rules Lee statue lawsuit can use FOIA claim

The Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park
Roberto Roldan
VPM News
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville's Market Street Park, circa 2020.

The city removed the bronze statue from Market Street Park in summer 2021.

A Charlottesville judge has thrown out most of a civil lawsuit filed to stop a Black cultural center from melting down a statue of Robert E. Lee.

The city removed the bronze statue from Market Street Park in summer 2021. That December, Council passed a resolution after midnight to donate it to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

The center plans to melt down and transform the Confederate monument into public art as part of its “Swords Into Plowshares” project.

Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation, an organization that submitted an offer to buy the 26-foot-tall statue, sued the city and the Jefferson School to invalidate the council’s decision.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. ruled Friday that Trevilian did not have standing to sue the city — in part because its offer was submitted too late.

However, the judge let Trevilian move forward with a claim that the city violated Virginia open records laws with a late-night resolution gifting the statue.

“Trevilian could have attended an open meeting to request its late offer be considered as allowed by Section 5.2 of the Solicitation of Offers,” Peatross wrote. “Likewise, Trevilian could have been present to contest the gift to the Center.”

Trevillian had argued that Charlottesville violated a state law requiring public notice before removing war memorials.

The Ratcliffe Foundation — a Tazewell-based organization that also bid on the statue in 2021 — was originally included as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. A judge removed the organization from the suit in May because its corporate status expired in 2015.

As the legal battle continues, Jefferson School says it will soon begin the search for an artist to repurpose the statue.

Executive director Andrea Douglas said in a press release, "We are encouraged to know that we are moving closer to a resolution of this case. As our team prepares to send out a Request for Qualifications to artists, we continue to fundraise for the project and to engage our community about the importance of cultural landscapes for creating community identity.”

Christopher Tate, attorney for the Jefferson School, said it’s unclear whether his clients will remain part of the lawsuit since it’s focused on whether Charlottesville violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

“With only a FOIA claim remaining in the case,” he said, “we anticipate further motions will result in the dismissal of the Center as a party, and judgment in our favor.”

VPM News could not reach Trevilian or its attorney for comment.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.