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A Black museum asks to melt Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue to create new art

Workers remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Va., in July. Initial plans to remove the statue four years ago sparked the infamous "Unite the Right" rally at which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.
Workers remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Va., in July. Initial plans to remove the statue four years ago sparked the infamous "Unite the Right" rally at which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.

Four years ago, the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., was at the heart of a violent white supremacist rally that left a counterprotester dead.

Now, a museum dedicated to Black culture and history has put forward a new proposal: Melt the statue down and use the bronze to create new works of public art.

The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center's proposal, titled "Swords into Plowshares," calls for commissioning an artist-in-residence to create the new artworks, which would be gifted to the city of Charlottesville upon completion.

"Our outcomes will not be determined by a single philanthropic voice as was the case when Paul Goodloe McIntire gifted representations of white supremacy to Charlottesville, but rather will represent the desires of the entire community for values-driven, socially just objects in our public spaces," the center's director, Andrea Douglas, said in a statement.

The Robert E. Lee statue was erected in 1924 as a gift from McIntire, a wealthy white stockbroker, during the nationwide wave of statue construction and other demonstrations of white supremacy like the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and proliferation of Jim Crow laws.

"This was at the height of Jim Crow segregation, at the height of lynchings in American history," Sterling Howell, programs coordinator with the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society told NPR in July. "There was a clear statement that [Black people] weren't welcome."

The debate over whether to remove the statue began in 2016, leading to the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi rally called Unite the Right.

There, a man struck counterprotester Heather Heyer with his car. He was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2018. Nine people who were injured that day have filed suit against the organizers of the rally; jury selection begins Monday.

The statue was finally removed in July.

According to the museum, the proposal has the backing of a variety of local, state and national arts and advocacy groups, along with some $500,000 in commitments to fund the project.

Nearly 100 Confederate monuments were taken down in 2020, according to an annual survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But most have stayed intact, whether in storage or in private ownership or having been moved to a new public location like a cemetery, battlefield or museum. An NPR investigation found that many jurisdictions also actively chose to keep their statues.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 21, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said the trial of the man who killed Heather Heyer is coming up. He was tried and convicted in 2018.