CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Workers used a crane to lift a Confederate statue from its pedestal Saturday morning, as a community marred by racial violence three years ago took a major step in eliminating the divisive symbols of the Civil War.
Crowds cheered at a distance behind metal barricades as the bronze figure of a Confederate soldier known as “At Ready” was taken down after 111 years outside the Albemarle County courthouse.
Earlier, cheers went up from the gathering as bronze plaques came off the sides of the monument and a cannon was hoisted off the ground. The crowd — all wearing masks, many wearing blue Union Civil War caps — chattered and danced to music broadcast by a local radio station over the beeping sound of work trucks moving around the square.
The cheerful scene was, to many, a repudiation of the deadly violence of the Unite the Right rally staged by white supremacists here three years ago.
“This is a magnificent moment,” said local community organizer Don Gathers, 61. “Much of the racial tension, strife and protest we’re seeing across the country emanates from right here in Charlottesville. But now we’re moving the needle in a positive way.”
Albemarle County supervisors voted earlier this summer to take down the figure of a Confederate soldier outside their courthouse, which is located within the city of Charlottesville.
Known as “At Ready,” the statue was not the focal point of the violent rally in 2017 that left one counterprotester dead. But it is a block away from the statue of Robert E. Lee that white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups said they were defending in the clash that endures as a symbol of the nation’s racial divide.
Charlottesville’s city council has voted to remove both Lee and a nearby monument to fellow Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, but a small group of Confederate supporters filed suit to save them. The case is headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia and could take months to be resolved.
In the meantime, armed individuals and militia groups have continued to make periodic “patrols” around all the Confederate figures in the area near the courthouse. Small clusters of police officers had stood at various points around the courthouse square early Friday evening, but the streets were quiet, apart from a few onlookers.
County and city officials had put up metal and plastic barriers around the courthouse Friday to keep people away from the work zone, citing concerns about the need to preserve social distance to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. They urged residents to watch the event via a live stream Saturday on Albemarle County social media.
Confederate statues have been falling across Virginia this year, as protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May has focused attention on the monuments as symbols of racial oppression. In Richmond, protesters pulled down a grand figure of Jefferson Davis. After that, Democratic Mayor Levar Stoney, invoking a state of emergency, ordered another 11 Confederate memorials taken down.
A judge’s injunction challenging his action was thrown out by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the plaintiff lacked legal standing.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered the removal of a titanic sculpture of Robert E. Lee on state property along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, but work has been blocked because of an ongoing court challenge.
Albemarle was the first locality in Virginia to use a process for removing Civil War statues that the General Assembly passed and Northam signed into law earlier this year. It went into effect July 1, and Albemarle’s supervisors moved that day to schedule a public hearing on the topic.
After a public comment period, the board voted unanimously in early August to take down the statue, which was erected in 1909, along with two cannons and a stack of cannonballs. It spent another 30 days receiving proposals for where to relocate the monument, and earlier this week agreed to send the group of objects to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.
Based in New Market, the foundation helps preserve and promote tourism at Civil War battlefields in eight counties that were collectively designated as a national historic district in 1996. Officials at the foundation could not be reached for comment on their specific plans for the statue.
The figure is being removed in sections, with the county paying about $60,000 for a local forklift crew and the battlefields foundation pitching in $3,600 for flatbed trucks, Albemarle spokesperson Emily Kilroy said.
The bronze statue on top is thought to weigh about 900 pounds, but officials don’t know whether the wedding-cake stack of stones forming the pedestal below are solid or hollow, Kilroy said. Saturday’s dismantling will be a process of discovery, she said — including the unearthing of a time capsule that was placed somewhere beneath the figure when it was erected.
Preservationists from the University of Virginia will be on hand to examine and conserve whatever items are inside the time capsule.
Activists who have long fought to eliminate Confederate symbols from Charlottesville hailed the removal as a first step but expressed disappointment that the monument was going to be erected again in another part of Virginia.
“We feel like it’s just basically toxic waste disposal in another community,” said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia.