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Charlottesville’s Lee Statue Melted Down into Bars for New Public Art

Interview by S. Davenport | Photos by Eze Amos

After a years-long saga, the removal of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue has reached a new phase. In 2021, the Charlottesville City Council agreed to donate the statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which plans to melt it down and create a more inclusive public art piece.

Community leaders like Zyahna Bryant, Wes Bellamy, and Kristin Szakos played a key role in advocating for the statue’s removal. However, the process was not without challenges. White supremacists and far-right extremists descended on Charlottesville in 2017 to protest the removal, and Heather Heyer was tragically killed in the violence.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Despite the obstacles, the statue was removed and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center took ownership. After a series of court challenges, the center was finally able to melt down the statue into bars. With community input, these bars will be used to create a new public art piece that is more representative of the entire Charlottesville community.

Foundry workers adjust pieces of Charlottesville’s bronze monument of Robert E. Lee atop a furnace to heat them in preparation for melting the statue. October 21, 2023. Photo by Eze Amos

Dr. Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center;  and Dr. Jalane Schmidt, Professor of Religious Studies at UVA and Director of the Memory Project at University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, both leaders of the Swords into Plowshares program, are hopeful that the new art piece will be a symbol of healing and unity for the city.

Vinegar Hill Magazine took some time to talk to Andrea about this project. Our conversation is below:

Vinegar Hill: Okay, let’s start with a tough one. Why did you do this?

Dr. Andrea Douglas: Because I think it’s necessary. A lot of people think it’s frivolous, but I don’t. These objects are not meant to be in public view. They were originally meant to sit in cemeteries to honor war dead. But over time, they’ve been given a symbolic meaning that is not real. They’re just objects.

These objects bother people, even if they say they don’t. People don’t go to places where they are because they understand what they symbolize. And these places are supposed to be egalitarian, where people can play and congregate and explore their culture. But these objects prevent that. They don’t allow for the free expression of what makes us human.

Molten bronze produced by melting Charlottesville’s monument of Robert E. Lee is poured from a hot crucible into ingot molds. October 21, 2023. Photo by Eze Amos

That’s why we did it. I don’t believe that we should be imbued with an ideology that serves no one except a very small segment of our population.

Vinegar Hill: Okay, so what are the larger implications of American history in this? What do you hope to achieve with this work?

Dr. Andrea Douglas: We’re the only people who have done something like this. Removing these objects from public space is not the end goal. It’s a way to clear space for us to start thinking differently about American history and our place in it.

This action is a way to spark transformation, a way to say that we want something different and better. It’s a counter-narrative to the white nationalism that is on the rise in America and around the world.

When these objects were first put into public spaces, it was a time when white people were trying to maintain control and create order. By removing them now, we are saying that we will not be controlled by this ideology any longer. We are creating a new order, one that is more inclusive and just. In short, I hope that this work will help us to create a more perfect union.

Removing these objects from public space is just as valid and appropriate as people who are removing certain books from view. We have to counter this activity. These are the spaces where control is being enforced, particularly around public education. Swords Into Plowshares is a public education project as much as anything else. Because if you keep your people uninformed, you’re able to keep them in control.

A foundry worker’s plasma torch illuminates the inside of the faceless head of Charlottesville’s bronze monument of Robert E. Lee as it is cut into smaller pieces in preparation for melting. October 21, 2023. Photo by Eze Amos

That’s kind of how I see much of this and what we’re demanding from Charlottesville. We’re making such public statements because we’re saying that those aren’t the values that we hold, that we should be moving beyond that and thinking about how systems are created and supported, and how we can create another belief system that allows us to take care of our people better.

Vinegar Hill: So the theme here is about who is human and who has rights, and how this is enforced through symbols?

Dr. Andrea Douglas: Yes, exactly. And this is happening at every level, even in our own community. For example, Paul Goodloe McIntire isn’t just talking about the Confederacy. He’s also talking about culture. He brought artists from New York to our community, who created objects that spoke to a particular sense of American individuality. But at the same time, he was acquiring properties himself that were segregating who had the right to those objects.

Monuments are powerful symbols. They speak to what we value as a society. And when we place a statue in Lee Park, we are sending a message that the Confederacy is something to be celebrated. McIntire was also buying large plots of land to make parks out of, but he was doing so within the construct of white spaces. These parks were created in conjunction with the development of white neighborhoods in Charlottesville.

A foundry worker places the sword from Charlottesville’s bronze monument of Robert E. Lee into a heated furnace to melt it. October 21, 2023. Photo by Eze Amos

Dr. Schmidt and I began our monument tours in order to articulate these kinds of things. We wanted to show people that these monuments are not just historic artifacts. They are being used to create a narrative about who belongs in our community and who doesn’t. Even the aesthetic discourse around these monuments is about human creation. The rituals that were created around these objects, such as school children parading around them and singing songs, were all ways to reinforce these belief systems.

Vinegar Hill: What were some of the challenges you faced along the way to ensuring that your dreams and desires for the Heritage Center were realized?

Dr. Andrea Douglas: One of the biggest challenges was the court case. The plaintiffs filed a series of lawsuits, including FOIA requests and procurement challenges, in an attempt to deter us from achieving our goals. However, we were determined to see this through to the end.

Another challenge was keeping the community engaged in the process. It was difficult to maintain people’s attention during a major health crisis and when we were also facing other pressing issues, such as education, healthcare, and housing. However, we believe that this issue is just as important as these other issues, because it is about creating a more just and equitable society.

Finally, we are still engaged in a conversation about what it means to be free in America. The history of Jim Crow has not ended, even though we have the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We are fighting for the right of all people to be treated with dignity and respect.

Vinegar Hill: I think that using America’s own idealism as a framework is a good idea, even though it might not be the highest moral standard. But if we just follow what we said we’d do, we’d probably be fine.

Dr. Andrea Douglas: Yes, I agree. Idealism for a single group doesn’t make it any less idealistic. It just makes it sinister in its outcomes. That’s how it works. You create a set of belief systems, and you hold yourself to those systems. Those people who you believe are outside of those systems become people who you work against. We’re just saying that we want to broaden those belief systems to include everyone. And you can’t include everyone unless you contend with the notion of public. Public means in every way, outside and inside. It’s not just people; it’s also the spaces that are created for people to occupy.

A cut portion of a bronze horse leg from Charlottesville’s monument of Robert E. Lee rests on sawhorses at a foundry in preparation for melting. October 21, 2023. Photo by Eze Amos

As we start to think about the possibilities of this project, I am just as happy and encouraged to have detractors participate. We are interested in the most democratic process that we can create, because this is antithetical to the way those statues were put in to begin with. One rich man, a wealthy philanthropist with a set of ideals that had nothing to do with the general public, used his money to create a landscape in his own liking. He dropped a lot of money in Charlottesville, and much of how we move around can be attributed to this singular man.

Vinegar Hill: So I hear that the statue melting was an emotional experience. You know, why might it have been that for some folks, in your opinion?

Dr. Andrea Douglas: Those are the hard questions. It’s sort of like when you’ve been holding your breath for so long and you finally get an opportunity to let go. That’s what it felt like for me. We’ve been able to achieve some successes along the way, but this moment meant that we could finally move to a more creative place.

It was also emotional because we’ve been accused of being vindictive, but we’re not. We’re determined to bring about more humane outcomes. We’re trying to heal a community and allow Charlottesville to contend with itself.

But Charlottesville believes that its healing is to go on with business as usual. It doesn’t want to argue anymore. It doesn’t want to think about equity anymore. It just wants to be able to do its business.

But those kinds of questions don’t go away, especially in a community as wealthy as this one, where the disparities are so wide and the cost of living is so high. This is just one step in the road, but it’s a significant step. It’s mind-blowing in a way, especially since we’ve been at it for five years.

Vinegar Hill: Any folks that you think are important who have been important to this process critical to moving this work forward along with Zyahana Bryant?

Dr. Andrea Douglas: Yes, there are many people who have been important to this process and critical to moving this work forward.

Nikuyah Walker because she took the conversation to city council and used her position to push back against some of Charlottesville’s accepted norms. She forced the University of Virginia to negotiate and allowed people to speak in public in ways they had not been allowed to before. Wes Bellamy because if he had not decided to run twice for council, Nikuyah would not have had a partner on that bench. A singular voice would not have been heard in the ways her voice had been heard.

A bronze ingot cast from melting down Charlottesville’s bronze monument of Robert E. Lee rests on sand as it cools. October 21, 2023. Photo by Eze Amos

Kristen Szakos and Dr. Jalane Schmidt: They went to the state government and worked on the statute that allowed localities to make these kinds of decisions. This is not just a local step, but a statewide step.

The Black Lives Matter activists in the community: They stood up when it was necessary, even when people were saying that the Ku Klux Klan didn’t mean anything and didn’t have any teeth. 

Vinegar Hill: What are your hopes that will come out of all of this? 

Dr. Andrea Douglas: My hope is that we can articulate in physical form what it means to live in this place, in a way that is open to interpretation and discussion. This was also John McIntire’s hope. The difference is that we are actively working towards a more inclusive and comprehensive description, one that includes the voices and bodies that were previously excluded. I believe that the outcomes of this process will reflect the culture, ideas, and ideals of our time, whether they align with or critique those ideals. This is what I think we are doing, and what I hope for the outcomes to be.

For more information about Swords Into Plowshares visit: https://sipcville.com/

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