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Zyahna Bryant wrote a petition in March of 2016 setting in motion the events that would lead to the removal of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument. Source: The Washington Post / Getty

A new PBS documentary explores the origin story of Charlottesville’s confederate monuments. Produced by The Memory Project, a program of the University of Virginia’s Democracy Initiative, “Unveiling: The Origins of Charlottesville’s Monuments” offers a nuanced conversation about the city’s confederate monuments.

Running a little under 30 minutes, the documentary explores the period between 1902 and 1924 and features commentary from key figures in the movement to place this period in its proper context. “Unveiling: The Origins of Charlottesville’s Monuments” features a mixture of images and newspaper clips interpersed through the conversation providing a broader context for the white supremacist narrative enveloping Charlottesville in the early 1900s.

Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Culture Center, recounted the decimation of a diverse community to make way for the Stonewall Jackson statue and surrounding park.

“What had been a Black and mixed race neighborhood, becomes a park that is anchored by a confederate statue,” Douglas said. “The discussion that begins to ensue about McKee Row is very similar to a discussion that will be used to displace Black people in this community on more than one occasion.”

These statues became a personification for the rise of the New South becoming a rallying point for a new iteration of the Klu Klux Klan and other groups like the Anglo Saxon Club. Those who decry monument removal often never address the historical context for the placements, often without any concern for local Black communities only one generation removed from slavery.

Led by Associate Professor of Religious Studies Jalane Schmidt, The Memory Project seeks to provide an objective examination of the past to provide a public accounting for the Charlottesville community and a path forward.

“It is not just simply about statues but is a way that we are also constructing the ideology of whiteness, and that ideology also includes, just like any other ideology, includes ritual and includes pageantry and includes public demonstration of the rightness and goodness of all of that space as well,” Schmidt said during the documentary.

Prompted by a petition by a high school student Zyahna Bryant, the city council voted to remove the Lee monument from public viewing. Charlottesville’s Lee monument became a source of right-wing violence five years ago when white supremacists determined to “unite the right” descended on the city.

And while the Lee monument was finally removed last year, litigation has delayed the community’s ability to move forward with a reclamation art project led by the Jefferson School. The Jefferson School seeks to provide Charlottesville with an accurate and complete telling of history by repurposing the bronze figure into something reflective of the entire community.

“Thank goodness in the year 2020 and 2021, these statues are kind of one by one being removed, and we are able to rethink as a community what we want public space to look like that expresses democratic values,” Schmidt continued.

Watch the full documentary on PBS.


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