Statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee removed in Charlottesville, Va.

A Confederate monument that helped spark a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., nearly four years ago has been hoisted off its stone pedestal.

Monument had helped spark deadly white nationalist protests in 2017

Charlottesville removes Confederate statue

12 months ago
Duration 0:55
Onlookers gather to watch the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., where a deadly nationalist protest took place four years ago against efforts to dismantle the monument.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was hoisted away from its place of prominence in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday and carted off to storage, years after its threatened removal became a rallying point for white supremacists and inspired their violent 2017 rally that left a woman dead and dozens injured.

Work to remove the statue began early Saturday morning. Crews also removed a statue depicting Confederate  Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

Spectators by the dozens lined the blocks surrounding the park, and a cheer went up as the Lee statue was lifted off the pedestal. There was a visible police presence, with streets blocked off to vehicular traffic by fencing and heavy trucks.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker gave a speech in front of reporters and observers as the crane neared the monument.

"Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Virginia and America, grapple with the sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain," Walker said.

Workers remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, after a years-long legal battle over the contentious monument, in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The removal of the statues follows years of contention, community anguish and litigation. A long, winding legal fight, coupled with changes in a state law that protected war memorials, had held up the removal for years.

Saturday's removal of the Lee and Jackson statues came after violence erupted at the infamous "Unite the Right" rally in August 2017. Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester, died in the violence, which sparked a debate in the U.S. over racial equity — further inflamed by now-former president Donald Trump's insistence that there was "blame on both sides."

The work seemed to proceed smoothly and fairly easily as couples, families with small children and activists looked on from surrounding blocks. The crowd intermittently chanted and cheered as the workers made progress. Music wafted down the street as a pair of musicians played hymns from a church near the Lee statue.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, left, shown with activist Zyahna Bryant, speaks to reporters on Saturday before workers began removing Lee's statue from Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Va. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There were at least a handful of opponents of the removal, including a man who heckled the mayor after her speech, but there was no visible, organized protester presence.

Ralph Dixon, a 59-year-old Black man born and raised in Charlottesville, was documenting the removal work Saturday morning, a camera around his neck.

Dixon said he was brought to the park where the Lee statue stood as a school-aged child.

Students told he was a 'great person'

"All the teachers, my teachers anyway, were always talking about what a great person this was," he said.

Dixon said his understanding of Lee's legacy and the statue's message evolved as he became an adult. He said it was important to consider the context of the Jim Crow era during which the statue was erected and said especially after Heyer's death, there was no reason the statue should stay.

"It needed to be done," he said.

After the Lee statue was gone, both workers and the crowd moved to a park about two blocks away for the Jackson statue removal. It took nearly an hour after a crane lifted the statue off its pedestal to situate the piece on a truck and secure it. But instead of dwindling, the crowd grew, many waiting with rapt attention to see it hauled away.

"It's quite a day. It's just a feeling of relief to see that statue be dragged out of here backwards and back into history where it belongs," said Rabbi Tom Gutherz of the nearby Congregation Beth Israel after the truck rumbled off with the Jackson monument.

Tanya and Evance Chanda from Mechanicsville, Va., look on as a statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson is removed on Saturday from Charlottesville's Court Square Park. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Only the statues, not their stone pedestals, were removed Saturday. They will be stored in a secure location until the city council makes a final decision about what should be done with them. Under state law, the city was required to solicit parties interested in taking the statues during an offer period that ended Thursday. It received 10 responses to its solicitation.

Steven Rousseau is a Canadian from Quebec's Saguenay region who's overseeing the project for a company awarded the contract to remove the monuments.

Each monument weighs "between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds," he said in telephone interview with Radio-Canada on Friday evening.

Jim Henson, who lives in nearby Barboursville, said Saturday he came to witness a "historic" event. He said he didn't have a strong personal opinion on the issue of Confederate monuments but he thought Charlottesville was happy to see the saga come to a conclusion.

"Good atmosphere, good vibes, good energy," he said.

The most recent removal push focused on the Lee monument began in 2016, thanks in part to a petition started by a Black high school student, Zyahna Bryant.

"To the young people out there, I hope that this empowers you to speak up on the issues that matter, and to take charge in your own cities and communities," Bryant, who's now a student at the University of Virginia, said to the crowd before removal work began.

"No platform for white supremacy. No platform for racism. And no platform for hate."

Also removed Saturday was a statue depicting Sacagawea, and explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, which has been criticized for a depiction of the Native American guide and interpreter some view as subservient and weak.

With files from Radio-Canada