Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The city should replace the memorial to Robert E. Lee with a memorial to Heather Heyer.
Late in June, the city of Charlottesville issued a request for proposals for redesigning Justice Park and Emancipation Park—formerly known as Jackson Park and Lee Park, and named for the two Confederate generals. As the fatal white supremacist rally in the city over the weekend demonstrated, what these spaces stand for is a subject of bloody debate.
The “Unite the Right” rally was ostensibly organized to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from what is now Emancipation Park. The blood shed nearby when James Fields allegedly drove his car into counter-protesters, injuring more than a dozen and killing a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer, has given new and unintended meaning to the grounds where the rally was staged. This may be the most urgent landscape brief since the memorials commemorating the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Right-wing extremists are engaged in an active campaign to ensure that the legacy of white supremacy is supported officially by cities throughout the former Confederacy (and even beyond its borders). Charlottesville has an opportunity to use its parks to define its character—to make the kind of declaration that white supremacists are trying to make on the city’s behalf. Now, instead of commemorating Lee—a general who fought to keep millions of Virginians in bondage—Emancipation Park serves as a de facto memorial to Heyer. That is a decision the city could make official, if it takes advantage of an existing plan to rethink its parks in order to commit to a full-throated objection to fascism, bigotry, and violence.
The design objectives under the current design brief are twofold: The city wants to use Justice Park to host a memorial to the slave population of Charlottesville. Its plans for Emancipation Park are less clear. The RFP calls for design schemes for the park “both inclusive and independent of the statue of Robert E. Lee.” One year ago, the city convened a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces and resolved in accordance with that group’s findings to do something about its parks. The RFP does not appear to reflect the decision by the Charlottesville City Council in February to remove the statue. (The city did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“The [Blue Ribbon Commission]’s Final Report acknowledged that far too often Charlottesville’s public spaces and histories have ignored, silenced or suppressed African American history, as well as the legacy of white supremacy and the unimaginable harms done under that cause,” the brief reads. “The public spaces of Charlottesville’s Historic North Downtown and Court Square Districts contain the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park, the Stonewall Jackson statue in Justice Park, the slave auction block and the Reconstruction era’s Freedman’s Bureau.”
The city mentions a new memorial planned for Montgomery, Alabama, as an example of what it has in mind for its rethink of Justice and Emancipation Parks. There, the Equal Justice Initiative seeks to balance one of Montgomery’s biggest oversights: the glaring absence of any markers or other memorials to the victims of lynching. The proposed Memorial to Peace and Justice would be a experiential national monument honoring the victims of lynching.
Including this example as a model suggests that Charlottesville is thinking in broad terms about its own downtown parks, looking to replace one anchored by a static retrograde statue with a memorial that offers a more dynamic and inclusive experience. These are urban, downtown parks: The narrative issues aside, a more modern approach just makes sense.
The city is accepting design proposals through August 17, which gives design teams only a scant few days to process the events of August 12—hardly enough time. While the design competition covers several important longstanding issues (notably the poor visibility around the Charlottesville slave auction block and later Freedman’s Bureau), a park design that does not account for the fight for the city’s parks will only be incomplete.
Charlottesville residents have a suggestion for the city: Rename it to honor Heyer’s death. The signs popping up dubbing the former Lee Park as “Heather Heyer Park” understand something about memorialization. Lee never lived in Charlottesville and didn’t die there. Heyer did. Lee didn’t make a stand to safeguard and protect the rights of all Charlottesville residents. Heyer did.
Emancipation Park doesn’t need a bronze hero on a horse. There is an opportunity to ensure that the next design for Emancipation Park and Justice Park will reflect the ideological battle over the meaning of these parks and of public space itself. A park that emphasizes the city’s commitment to the public commons, free speech, democracy, and social justice will pay tribute to Heyer’s sacrifice. Charlottesville should make sure that the parks get that chance.