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Teen Starts Petition to Remove Robert E. Lee Statue from Charlottesville's Lee Park

Posted: Updated: Mar 22, 2016 08:36 AM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

Charlottesville City Council will intervene in the debate over Confederate symbols after hundreds of people signed a petition demanding them to take down a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Mayor Mike Signer has responded by releasing a plan to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Confederate memorials. The plan came out just before the Council meeting got underway Monday at City Hall.

The mayor’s plan calls for a task force to be created within 30 days and the process would include public engagement.

All of this comes as supporters of the plan to remove Robert E. Lee from his perch over the park say it's time to unite the city.

They're also facing a firestorm of opposition from southern heritage groups. The Virginia Flaggers group calls this effort "un-american" and says taking down this monument disrespects veterans.

This statue is one of three monuments honoring Confederate figures within a few blocks of each other in downtown Charlottesville. The people who are calling on Council to take the statue of Robert E. Lee down say that it divides the community.

Fifteen-year-old Zyanha Bryant started a petition on the website change.org after talking with Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy. The petition calls the monument to the Confederate general "offensive" and it urges Council to remove the statue and rename the park.

Bryant believes in the year 2016 General Robert E. Lee doesn’t belong in a public park.

“No one is trying to erase history or change anything about history, because you can't do that because history already happened. What we're trying to do is make sure everyone feels comfortable everywhere in the city,” said Bryant.

"I believe we must continually strive to heal the wounds created by slavery and racism in our community. For me, this decision is not about one man or one statue. It's about how we reckon today with the shameful decisions during the Jim Crow era," Signer stated.

The statue has stood over Lee Park since 1924. The city hosted a parade from the University of Virginia to the park during a reunion of Confederate veterans. An Invitation to the ceremony shows the great-granddaughter of General Lee, and Virginia’s governor helping to unveil the monument. 

“Good or bad, we should never remove our history. We should know it good or bad, so we don't repeat it,” said Curt Davis, a resident of Charlottesville.

The debate is a repeat of one that Councilor Kristin Szakos started in 2012.

“At that time, there was a fair bit of support in the community, and a fair bit of backlash from outside the community,” said Szakos.

Szakos says she has faced threats and intimidation. She added that changes to Virginia law will allow the controversial statue to come down.

“It's sort of dominating our downtown, that needs to go. We need to take that statue, and take it to someplace that's historically significant for that figure,” said Szakos.

Bryant hopes the community can have a powerful discussion of its past.

“I do really hope that people learn something from this entire thing, and I hope people are more inclined to do research for the things that are in their city,” said Bryant.

There's already a Facebook group called Save the Robert E.Lee Statue with more than 700 followers. 

Bellamy and supporters have scheduled a press conference at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in Lee Park to discuss their plan.

City Council is expected to take up the issue at its meeting on April 18. 

Statement from Mayor Mike Signer on Charlottesville's Confederate Memorials:

Charlottesville is indeed a world-class city.  But we have dark chapters in our past, including slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation, Massive Resistance, and Vinegar Hill.  We see one of those chapters every time we're in Lee Park or Court Square, where, in the 1920s, City leaders elected to celebrate the Confederacy and, by extension, slavery by placing large monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.  As historical photographs document, these installations occurred with parades of thousands of people celebrating the Confederate cause.  We can only imagine how exclusionary those events were.

With the passage of time and our long march toward inclusion, social justice, and societal progress, we can now see those choices for what they were: mistakes that demeaned our brothers and sisters and stained a fine city's legacy.  To quote Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans on another great Southern city's decision to move its Confederate memorials to museums:

"Symbols matter and should reflect who we are as a people. These monuments do not now, nor have they ever reflected the history, the strength, the richness, the diversity or the soul of who we are as a people and a city.  This is the right thing to do and now is the time to do it. Moving the location of these monuments - from prominent public places in our city where they are revered to a place where they can be remembered - changes only their geography, not our history."

I believe we must continually strive to heal the wounds created by slavery and racism in our community.  For me, this decision is not about one man or one statue.  It's about how we reckon today with the City's shameful decisions, during the Jim Crow era, to celebrate the Confederacy in our public places.  However, as the Mayor of the whole City, I need to make an informed and deliberative decision on this matter.  We've already heard from many Charlottesvillians on both sides, and I will continue to listen and learn in the weeks ahead.  I believe we should rely on the wisdom of our remarkable community by creating a "Blue Ribbon Commission on Confederate Memorials" that will work on issues including:

1.       Ample engagement with the community through public hearings and efforts  like the petition underway
2.       Evaluating and advising on the full range of options before us, including moving the memorials to a museum, changing their context to reflect current values, and adding new memorials
3.       Fully explaining the policy behind the effort, including which memorials may be included in the policy and why
4.       Assessing the costs involved, including moving monuments and creating new ones
5.       Developing both a funding and fundraising strategy for any effort
6.       Determining the appropriate historical location where memorials might be moved

I believe this Task Force should be created within 30 days, and should report back to Council on the above questions within 90 days.  Finally, I believe Council should also order a full legal review of any obstacles from our attorneys, and that the Task Force should also be advised by our counsel.
In the weeks ahead, I plan on discussing this proposal with my colleagues and with the community, as we forge, together, a path from the darkness of the past to a brighter future.

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