The Swords Into Plowshares project is our vision for transforming Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue into a new commissioned work of public art. In naming the initiative, we have drawn inspiration from the prophetic vision of Isaiah 2:4, which celebrates turning tools of violence into ones of peace and community-building. This project is shaping the national conversation around toppled Confederate statues by modeling a community-engaged process of creative transformation – one that turns historic trauma into an artistic expression of democratic values and inclusive aspirations.
On August 11 & 12, 2017, Charlottesville’s Lee statue became an international lightning rod when white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest its proposed removal. By the time one of the rioters drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others, Charlottesville had become a hashtag – and a bellwether for communities confronting what it means to break with past legacies of oppression.
Swords Into Plowshares is spearheaded by Charlottesville’s Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center (JSAAHC), a respected Black-led non-profit organization. Its mission is to honor and preserve the rich history and culture of the local and global African-American communities.
After finally removing the Lee statue in July 2021, Charlottesville’s City Council accepted our proposal and donated the statue to the JSAAHC in December 2021. Unfortunately, two Virginia neo-Confederate organizations immediately challenged our progressive vision with a spurious lawsuit against the Heritage Center and the City of Charlottesville.
Nevertheless, our team forged ahead with the community engagement phase of the project. Swords Into Plowshares is committed to including local community members as co-creators in the conception and design of the artwork. To solicit local involvement, we collaborated with the University of Virginia’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation, which designed and executed a months-long process modeled on that of UVA’s renowned Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. A primary criteria for our eventual evaluation of artists’ proposals is how effectively they incorporate the input we have gathered from the community.
The JSAAHC prevailed in the lawsuits in September 2023. In October 2023, we fulfilled our promise to our supporters and the community to melt down the statue into bronze ingots that will become the basis of a new work of art. The next phase is to form a jury and solicit artist proposals, with the goal of announcing a finalist in 2024. Ideally, the new art piece(s) will be completed, donated back to the City of Charlottesville, and installed in 2027, the tenth anniversary of the 2017 right-wing attacks.
The Swords Into Plowshares project is led by a steering committee that includes Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center; Jalane Schmidt, professor of Religious Studies at UVA and Director of the Memory Project at University of Virginia's Karsh Institute of Democracy; Lisa Draine, Interim Project Director & Media Liaison for the Swords into Plowshares project; Frank Dukes, Professor of Architecture and Distinguished Fellow, at UVA's Institute for Environmental Negotiation; & Claire Antone Payton, Manager of the Memory Project at UVA's Karsh Institute of Democracy.
Zyahna Bryant's Petition
In 2016, a high school student named Zyahna Bryant created a petition calling for the removal of the Lee statue.
Blue Ribbon Commission meetings
City Council-appointed BRC gathers Charlottesville public opinion about statues.
City Council votes to remove the Lee statue
Opponents, citing Virginia law, sue the City to prevent removal
The Lee statue erupted from a local to an international symbol of white supremacy when neo-Nazi rioters descended on Charlottesville to halt the removal, killing Heather Hayer.
New state law allows cities to remove statues
But a continuing lawsuit still prevents the City of Charlottesville from removing its statues, armed vigilante ate “statue guards” roam city parks, intimidating residents.
Supreme Court of Virginia rules
Lawsuit resolved in favor of City of Charlottesville to allow removal of its statues
The statue was removed from a public park in July 2021. In October, City Council requested proposals from organizations interested in taking possession of the statue.
City Council Approves SIP Proposal
The city council voted unanimously to donate the Robert E. Lee statue to the African American Heritage Center which proposed to melt down the statue. Opponents file another lawsuit.
Community Engagement Launch
SIP hosted its first public meeting about public spaces, art, and the future of the Lee statue.
Lee statue melted
Jefferson School announces that judges's ruling resolved lawsuit