A civil lawsuit aimed at stopping a Charlottesville museum from melting down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee has suffered another hit in court, with the majority of it dismissed by the presiding judge. After being removed from Market Street Park in 2021, the statue has been at the center of a dispute and debate that involves several foundations.
The statue is question was one of three removed from Charlottesville in July 2021, along with one of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and another depicting Sacagawea and explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The latter, presented to the city in 1919, had long been criticized for showing Sacagawea as subservient and weak.
In December 2021, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center won a bid to obtain ownership of the statue, with the plan being to melt it down and turn it into a new piece of artwork. Almost immediately, the decision was met with a lawsuit from the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation.
The former manages an American Civil War-era battlefield in Virginia, while the latter runs a museum related to Robert E. Lee. Both had submitted failed bids for the statue, with the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation losing out because it had thrown its hat into the ring too late.
While part of the initial lawsuit over the statue, the Charlottesville Circuit Court ruled the Ratcliffe Foundation be removed, as its corporate status had expired in 2015. In a recent ruling, Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. dismissed two claims from the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation, which stated the city had violated state law over public contracts and public notices regarding the removal of war memorials.
Peatross did say, however, that the suit could continue with its claim that Charlottesville had violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
As part of the recent ruling, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center was removed as a defendant on the lawsuit.
The museum obtained the statue of Robert E. Lee as part of its “Swords Into Plowshares” project. In 2022, it launched an online survey, in which the public was asked for opinions on what the statue should be melted into. The majority of responses suggested turning it into something that honors the historical African-American individuals who helped shape Charlottesville.
Speaking with The Washington Post, Executive Director Andrea Douglas said, “The lawsuit has always felt like an attempt to create a distraction from the overall project. Our goal really is to engage in a conversation about public space – and how one makes those public spaces in the most democratic way possible.”
She added in a press release, “We are encouraged to know that we are moving closer to a resolution of this case. As our team prepares to send out a Request for Qualifications to artists, we continue to fundraise for the project and to engage our community about the importance of cultural landscapes for creating community identity.”
The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center is planning to search for an artist in the near future, with the aim being to unveil the new statue by 2026.