CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - With activists from Charlottesville by his side, Governor Ralph Northam announced that the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond would be removed in the coming weeks. For people who have worked to move the statues here in central Virginia, it’s a victory in a battle that has been raging in the public eye for the last decade, and in private for much longer.
Don Gathers, former chair of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission tasked with evaluating the future of the statues in 2016, grew up in Richmond. He remembers looking up at the 60-foot-tall statue of the Confederate general, and the many others that line the street.
They were very, very much hurtful," Gathers explained. “The racism that they represent, and why they were put up in the first place. It just brings up a sordid time of our history, in our past, that no one wants to be reminded of."
The public debate over what to do with the statues has raged in Charlottesville for the last decade. That time saw the Blue Ribbon Commisison recommend re-contextualizing the monuments, the city voting to remove them, the events of the Unite the Right rally in 2017, and temporary blocks of the statues’ removal in court. Gathers says it’s been a battle just to get to this point.
“The work that was done was very much necessary," he adds. "We can’t make progress if we continue to stay stuck in the past, and these continued symbols of racism just need to be erased.”
Kristin Szakos, a former city councilor, began speaking out publicly against the statues in 2012. She was met quickly with backlash. She says she is celebrating the removal today as a sign of progress, not just for Richmond or Charlottesville, but for all of Virginia.
“It’s not the end goal to get rid of the monuments, but getting rid of the monuments symbolizes a commitment to the kind of justice work that has to happen,” Szakos explained.
Zyahna Bryant started the original petition to remove the Lee statue in Charlottesville’s Market Street Park, then called Lee Park, as a freshman in high school. She spoke at the governor’s press conference, thanking those who came before and worked for decades to lay the groundwork for this day.
“Without them we wouldn’t be here," Bryant said. "Without a little bit of inconvenience, without a little bit of making people uncomfortable, we wouldn’t be here.”
As for where they want to see the statues go, activists are unsure.
“They can go to a battlefield, they can go to a museum," Gathers suggested. "They can go anywhere other than right in the immediate downtown or Charlottesville.”
“Put them in storage and then have that conversation," Szakos said. "Don’t delay the actual moving of them to know where they’re going.”
While the state is going to begin removing the Lee statue over the next few weeks, Charlottesville does not yet have a plan for removing its statues. The city council and City Manager Tarron Richardson are still in preliminary discussions about what to do with the monuments. The city says it is a process they would like the community to be involved with this summer.
Localities can remove their Confederate statues beginning July 1.