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The city of Charlottesville, Va., removed a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Saturday, toppling a symbol that was at the center of the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017.
The statue — along with another of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson that was also to be removed Saturday — will remain on city property until the city council decides what to do with them. Ten groups have expressed interest in the statues, according to a statement from the city.
“Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia, and America, grapple with the sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain,” Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said as the crane neared the Lee monument, the Associated Press reported.
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The removals were set in motion by a 2016 petition started by a local high school student. The city council voted to take the statues down early the next year, but that action was delayed by a legal challenge that was ultimately rejected by the Virginia Supreme Court this April.
The statues of Lee and Jackson — and threats to remove them — served as a rallying cry for the far right in the summer of 2017. The tension spilled into violence in the Aug. 12, 2017, Unite the Right Rally as neo-Nazis clashed with counter protestors. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man drove into a crowd of pedestrians. Dozens of others were injured in that attack and other violence.
Another, taller statue of Lee remains standing in Richmond, Virginia’s capital., awaiting a final judgment in a separate legal challenge. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered the state-owned statue removed as soon as the case is resolved. Four other Confederate statues that lined the city’s iconic Monument Avenue were taken down last summer amid racial justice protests.
Charlottesville’s statues of Lee and Jackson were erected in the early 1920s with large ceremonies that included Confederate veteran reunions, parades and balls. At one event during the 1921 unveiling of the Jackson statue, children formed a living Confederate flag on the lawn of a school down the road from Vinegar Hill, a prominent Black neighborhood. The Jackson statue was placed on land that had once been another prosperous Black neighborhood.
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Their erection coincided with a push across the South to valorize the Confederacy and suppress Black communities, according to Sterling Howell, programs coordinator with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.
“This was at the height of Jim Crow segregation, at the height of lynchings in American history,” he said. “There was a clear statement that they weren’t welcome.”