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Swords Into Plowshares asks how Robert E. Lee statue should be repurposed

Schmidt embraces Arbeit
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Jalane Schmidt embraces her partner Mimi Arbeit during Swords Into Plowshares’ reclaiming the dedication of the Robert E. Lee statue on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at Market Street Park in Charlottesville.

The group gathered in Charlottesville to mark the 100th installation anniversary.

Members of the Charlottesville community joined Swords Into Plowshares on Tuesday as the group works toward “recasting and reclaiming” Market Street Park, where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, stood from 1924 until 2021.

“Part of the way that we want to claim space is to have art … art that speaks to us — to our better selves, that speaks to the whole community,” said Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor. “[The kind of art] that speaks to the kind of inclusive values that we profess to have. We want to affirm the values of multiracial democracy and of having spaces where we can all gather together.”

Swords Into Plowshares takes its name from the Bible verse Isaiah 2:4, “which celebrates turning tools of violence into ones of peace and community-building.” The group, led by the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, hopes to shape a national conversation about Confederate monuments, and what to do with them once they’ve been removed.

Paul Goodloe McIntire commissioned a series of monuments in Charlottesville, including the statue of Lee sitting on his horse. All of them were removed in July 2021.

DeTeasa Gathers, who attended Tuesday’s event, was born and raised in Charlottesville. While growing up, her grandmother would say, “We don’t go over there,” referring to the statue.

When the Lee statue was dedicated in 1924, her grandmother was 14 years old. In 1926, the Public Assemblages Act — which made it illegal for Black and white people to congregate in public spaces — passed in the General Assembly, outlawing interracial public gatherings in Virginia. (That discriminatory measure was among several the statehouse appears to have unanimously repealed in 2020.)

Today, Gathers is a grandmother herself who retells the history to her own 14-year-old granddaughter.

“Our Black community; some of us walked through and said that monument didn’t mean anything. Some of us didn’t pay attention that this was very important to our community. Now what do you think now that it has rocked not only Charlottesville, but rocked the nation from this monument coming down,” Gathers said.

Wes plays with his daughter near where the Robert E Lee statue once stood
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Wes Bellamy plays with his daughter, Stokely Bellamy, 4, during Swords Into Plowshares’ reclaiming the dedication of the Robert E. Lee statue on Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In December 2021, Charlottesville City Council members passed a resolution to donate the statue to the JSAAHC. At least two lawsuits followed in 2022 that tried to prevent the group from melting down the statue.

None of the lawsuits were successful.

In 2023, the bronze Lee sculpture was secretly melted down, with plans to transform it into a new public art piece. Now, Swords Into Plowshares is asking the public for suggestions on how to repurpose the bronze — as well as where to put it.

Andrea Douglas, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s executive director, spoke during Tuesday night’s event.

“When we took the bronze and prepared it for our next step, that was just another step. It was not the end of anything. Our goal is to get to a new object that is representative of the values that we believe in today,” Douglas said.

How does a community reclaim space into something that’s representative of today’s values? One way is to rechannel that rage into something else.

“I’m looking for accomplices to truly disrupt what this statue represented,” said Gene Cash, executive director of the Counseling Alliance of Virginia. “It represented white terror and domination, and if we don’t see it; if we don’t name it, we can’t change it.”

When Cash works with people dealing with racial trauma and its impact, he talks about “rechanneling their rage.”

“How do you reach out on your rage? How do you talk about it? How do you let it out?” he asked.

Cash invited the crowd to scream with him, to let out the anger they’ve been holding in; first with some practice screams, leading up to the final scream: “I scream for freedom and liberation!”

Later this year, the group hopes to have a plan in place to identify five potential artists for the repurposed bronze. Selected artists will engage with the Charlottesville community on the art piece. The project’s planned completion is set for 2027.

Meghin Moore is a VPM News editor. She's a Penn State graduate with a background in broadcast and digital journalism. Previously, she worked at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.
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