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Roanoke council expected to begin process to remove Lee memorial

Roanoke council expected to begin process to remove Lee memorial

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The Robert E. Lee memorial’s retreat from downtown Roanoke most likely begins Monday.

Roanoke City Council will consider a resolution to remove the memorial to the Confederate general, which has stood since 1960 in a plaza that also bears Lee’s name.

A majority of the council’s seven members have gone on record saying that they support removing the Lee memorial. That majority includes Mayor Sherman Lea, who said last month that the city must still follow the legal process for removing the Confederate monument.

“We are going to move on it as fast as we legally can,” Lea said Thursday.

That process got much easier this week. On Wednesday, a new state law went into effect that allows localities to remove monuments to the Confederacy or other wars, as long as a public comment period is held and other procedural steps are taken. The Roanoke City Council will take up its resolution Monday, its first meeting since the new law was enacted.

If the resolution passes as expected, the council will schedule a public hearing on the matter for 7 p.m. Aug. 16, which adheres to the law’s mandate that a local government give 30 days public notice of its intent.

Following the August hearing, should the city stick to a plan to remove the Lee memorial, the council has another 30 days to offer it to a museum, historical society or other organization, although the city is not bound to give the memorial to any group or individual that asks for it. The council has the final say on what happens to the memorial.

That timeline means that mid-September is the earliest the memorial would be removed.

The effort to remove Confederate monuments has gained considerable momentum since the death of George Floyd, an African American man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee on the man’s neck for nearly

eight minutes. The video of the killing sparked nationwide protests and rekindled the drive to take down memorials to the Confederacy.

Having been founded as a railroad boomtown in 1882, Roanoke did not exist during the Civil War, which is perhaps why the city has so few monuments to the Confederacy. The ones that it did have are being removed.

The city changed the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, neighboring Jackson Park and the Jackson Park Library in 2018, a year after white supremacists protested in Charlottesville.

Another small stone marker along Brandon Avenue in southwest Roanoke commemorates the Lee Highway, a name that covers much of U.S. 11 through the southern Shenandoah Valley and Southwest Virginia. No plans have been made public about the future of that marker.

Lee Plaza, a tree-lined park filled with flowers and highlighted by the Roanoke Valley War Memorial, was named in 1957, three years before the Lee memorial was erected. At that time, the plaza was a heavily trafficked pavilion in front of the old downtown post office.

When the city council agreed to name the park Lee Plaza in the spring of 1957, it did so “in honor of the great Confederate Chieftain,” the resolution stated.

Both the monument and the plaza were requested by the Roanoke-based William Watts Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Roanoke Children of the Confederacy youth group. The nearly 10-foot granite pillar was dedicated on Oct. 4, 1960, a ceremony that received little local attention except for one black and white photograph in The Roanoke Times.

The 1960 dedication coincided with the statewide UDC convention that was being held at Hotel Roanoke. According to a newspaper account of that convention, one speaker told her audience that: “More heroes came out of the War Between the States, more Confederate heroes than from the other side.”

Little-noticed for much of its time in Lee Plaza, the monument has been the site of vandalism in recent years, especially after the Charlottesville protests during which counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed after a man drove his car into a crowd. Soon after that, someone spray-painted “Rest in power, Heather Heyer” on the Roanoke memorial.

The inscription on the base that bears Lee’s name has also been damaged over the past several years.

Monday’s council meeting begins at 2 p.m. and can be live-streamed through Facebook. The council’s following meeting on July 20 is scheduled to be held in council chambers for the first time since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted meetings to be held through videoconferencing.

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993. He covers the City of Roanoke and writes the Dadline parenting column.

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