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When Fredericksburg was growing up, the man the town most associates with was Robert E. Lee.
The first statues of Confederate leaders were erected in Fredericksburg in 1858 as part of a $150,000 war-hero charity. Lee accepted the award that came with the statue, shaking hands with a Confederate general who’d surrendered in the Civil War. Then a few years later, a monument was erected in the city’s Riverside park honoring a rival to Lee, Lieutenant General John B. Hunt.
Eventually the statues of Robert E. Lee and John B. Hunt both found a home in Riverside, where many monuments that glorify slavery were dedicated across the South. Before long, local Confederate statues began popping up all across the state and beyond. About 200 of these monuments lie within one of three designated Confederate Memorial Parks, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Charlottesville’s version of the memorial was erected in the 1920s when Robert E. Lee and his family became honorary residents of Fredericksburg. It is situated on High Street across from the Fredericksburg Memorial Courthouse and was dedicated to the Lee family and their service to the Virginian. Robert E. Lee himself never moved into the residence, so the man himself never laid eyes on the statue.
The statue was later replaced in 1989. Since then, however, the statue has been vandalized countless times. In 2005, a citizen started a Change.org petition to have the statue’s brass detailing removed, and in 2009 the banner on the back of the statue was broken. At one point, the Governor’s Mansion had its front door barricaded after a spray-painted sign was slipped in the letterbox.
But in an era of increasing racial tension and violence, the arrival of white nationalists in the Virginia town has renewed concerns about the future of the memorial and the Confederate monuments themselves. After flying American flags on both sides of the monument and pushing for the removal of the memorial monuments to Lee, the city is weighing options for removal in the coming weeks.
The mayor and City Council will decide by July 5th if they’ll bring it up for a vote. And next month, a citizens committee appointed by Mayor Rosie Gray will travel to Richmond to talk with the state’s General Assembly about how to handle the statuary and other Civil War-era memorabilia.
Similar marches and rallies have broken out in cities across the country following last weekend’s deadly clashes in Charlottesville.
Back in Fredericksburg, the statue has been a point of contention since the 1980s. The city’s former mayor Marcellus Chandler Dudley championed an effort to turn it into a historical landmark in 1987. During his first mayoral campaign in 1982, he received a shout-out on National Public Radio from none other than his longtime friend Robert E. Lee.
Unlike some white nationalists, however, Dudley never advocated for the monument’s toppling. Instead, he pointed to the statue as a symbol of “political glory.”
“When the standing Robert E. Lee is buried I’ll feel good,” he once said. “I’ll feel proud of him and for the status that he had.”
Whether or not Dudley and Robert E. Lee were on the same page, the sentiment has long been shared by some local residents. Since the statue was turned over to the state in the 1990s, it has remained protected on a concrete pedestal.
Some of those locals are calling for its disappearance. Last week a group of activists began a campaign on Change.org to get the statue destroyed and to demand its removal. Over the weekend, as the violence in Charlottesville escalated, the group began collecting signatures on a petition to take it down, which has collected over 500 signatures.
But Confederate memorials across the country are enjoying mixed reactions from most. Supporters of Confederate memorials are staking a claim to pride and history in the soil they were taken to.
Robert E. Lee fought the war and went home to Virginia. So does his statue. It’s time to act up like everyone else, say a couple of locals at the #Justice4Charlottesville rally https://t.co/HMG8kXIUK7 pic.twitter.com/AwrAynMBkZ — Action News on 6abc (@6abc) August 12, 2017
More recently, other states are also dealing with statues that lie in historical parks. In Arkansas last week, the heritage groups responsible for the monuments commissioned lawyers to contest the state’s statue removal law,