Work to remove the statue began early Saturday morning. The crews also removed a statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Dozens of spectators lined up on the blocks surrounding the park, and cheers rose as the statue of Lee was lifted from the pedestal. There was a visible police presence, with streets blocked off to traffic by fences and heavy trucks.
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker delivered a speech to reporters and observers as the crane approached the monument.
“Tearing down this statue is one small step towards the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia and America grapple with the sin of wanting to destroy black people for economic gain,” Walker said.
The removal of the statues follows years of discord, community angst and litigation. A long and torturous legal fight, coupled with changes in state law that protected war memorials, had delayed the move for years.
The removal of the Lee and Jackson statues on Saturday came after violence erupted at the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester, died in the violence, which sparked a debate in the United States over racial fairness – still inflamed by former President Donald Trump’s insistence that it was “both sides’ fault.”
The work seemed to go smoothly and fairly easily as couples, families with young children and activists watched from the surrounding blocks. The crowd intermittently sang and applauded as the workers progressed. Music floated down the street as a pair of musicians played hymns from a church near the statue of Lee.
There were at least a handful of opponents to the removal, including a man who heckled the mayor after his speech, but there was no visible and organized presence of protesters.
Ralph Dixon, a 59-year-old black man born and raised in Charlottesville, was documenting the moving work on Saturday morning with a camera around his neck.
Dixon said he was taken to the park where Lee’s statue was located as a school-aged child.
The students said he was a “great person”
“All the teachers, my teachers anyway, always said how great a person he was,” he said.
Dixon said his understanding of Lee’s legacy and the statue’s message evolved as he grew into an adult. He said it was important to take into account the context of the Jim Crow era in which the statue was erected and said, especially after Heyer’s death, that there was no reason why the statue remains.
“It had to be done,” he said.
Only the statues, and not their stone plinths, will be removed on Saturday. They will be kept in a safe place until the city council makes a final decision on what to do with them. Under state law, the city was required to solicit interested parties to take the statues during an offering period that ended Thursday. He received 10 responses to his request.
Steven Rousseau is a Canadian from the Saguenay region of Quebec, who is overseeing the project of a company that won the contract to remove the monuments.
Each monument weighs “between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds,” he said in a telephone interview with Radio-Canada on Friday evening.
Jim Henson, who lives in the nearby town of Barboursville, said on Saturday he had come to attend a “historic” event. He said he did not have a strong personal opinion on the issue of Confederate monuments, but he believed Charlottesville was happy to see the saga come to an end.
“Good atmosphere, good vibes, good energy,” he said.
The latest Lee monument-focused removal campaign began in 2016, thanks in part to a petition started by black high school student Zyahna Bryant.
“It’s well overdue,” said Bryant, who is now a student at the University of Virginia.
“No platform for white supremacy. No platform for racism. No platform for hate. “