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Charlottesville's statue of Robert E. Lee will soon be melted down into public art

Workers remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on July 10 in Charlottesville, Va. Initial plans to remove the statue four years ago sparked the infamous "Unite the Right" rally where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.
Win McNamee
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Workers remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on July 10 in Charlottesville, Va. Initial plans to remove the statue four years ago sparked the infamous "Unite the Right" rally where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.

The statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that once stood in downtown Charlottesville, Va., will be melted down and turned into a public arts project after receiving city council approval this week.

Debate over removing the statute helped ignite the Unite the Right demonstration in August 2017, a deadly neo-Nazi rally where a man drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one person. The statute was finally taken down in July.

As some cities in the South have removed Confederate monuments and symbols, there have been discussions about what to do with the relics.

In Charlottesville, the Jefferson School American Heritage Center, a local Black-led nonprofit, will take on the project, which it has named Swords Into Plowshares. Creating the art piece will help engage the Charlottesville community in how inclusion can be represented through art and public space, the group says.

"Our hope with 'Swords into Plowshares' is to create something that transforms what was once toxic in our public space into something beautiful that can be more reflective of our entire community's social values," Andrea Douglas, the center's executive director, said in a statement.

"We're giving people opportunities to engage with our own narratives and our own histories. This project offers a road map for other communities to do the same."

One of those communities may be the state's capital, Richmond. What to do with that city's massive statue of Lee, which was removed in September, is still in question.

After the decision to remove it was caught up in legal battles in Virginia's Supreme Court, the statue was finally dismantled — a process that involved cutting through the statue — and taken down and is being stored in an undisclosed location.

Gov. Ralph Northam decided to keep the pedestal of the statue in place at the time. But on Sunday, he announced the 40-foot pedestal was coming down as well, a process that he says will be completed by the end of the year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.