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Roanoke council votes to remove Robert E. Lee memorial; public hearing set for Aug. 17
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Roanoke council votes to remove Robert E. Lee memorial; public hearing set for Aug. 17

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The memorial to Robert E. Lee has stood in Lee Plaza since 1960, when it was dedicated by the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter during a statewide UDC convention.

The Roanoke City Council on Monday began the process of removing the memorial marker to Robert E. Lee from downtown Roanoke.

The council unanimously approved a resolution to remove the 60-year-old granite shaft from Lee Plaza. The memorial to the Virginia-born Confederate general has stood just off Third Street Southwest since October 1960, when it was dedicated by a Roanoke chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Monuments to the Confederacy have long been polarizing throughout the South, but state law did not allow for removal by localities. That all changed July 1 when a new law passed by Democratic majorities in the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam went into effect that gives local governing bodies the ability to remove war memorial statues and markers.

Monday’s resolution begins a process that will take at least two months before the Lee memorial will be removed from its current spot. According to the new law, the council must give 30 days’ notice of a public hearing, which will be held Aug. 17. (The resolution was amended after it was noted that the original draft included the incorrect date.)

Following the public hearing, the council must wait another 30 days as it considers possible offers to accept the memorial from museums, battlefields or other organizations. After that, if the council remains committed to getting rid of the Lee memorial, removal could begin sometime after mid-September.

Council member Bill Bestpitch, who seconded council member Michelle Davis’s motion to adopt the resolution, said he was frustrated that the process will take the rest of the summer. He said that he wishes the council could have made its intentions known during its last meeting June 15, but the law did not allow that.

Bestpitch urged patience.

“Unlike what we have seen going on in other places, we are going to follow the law and be meticulous,” he said.

Confederate monuments have been coming down — sometimes legally, other times pulled down by protesters — since the death of George Floyd, an African American man whose death beneath the knee of a police officer was recorded on video on May 25. The video sparked outrage and protests across the United States, including protests in Roanoke.

During the public comments period early in the meeting, which was held via online video-conferencing, one caller urged council to delay adopting the resolution to move the memorial. The man said that because the tall granite marker has stood in downtown Roanoke for 60 years, waiting another six months “to let emotions mellow out” would give council more time to consider “unintended consequences,” such as demands for the removal of non-Confederate memorials around the city.

Whitney Leeson, president of the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation, acknowledged that Confederate memorials have become rallying points for white supremacist groups. She recommended that council consider locating the memorial in an educational setting, such as a local museum, where all aspects of American history could be properly contextualized, which includes the Jim Crow era of segregation and the civil rights movement. She said the monument should be moved to a location with a Civil War connection, such as Hanging Rock near Salem or Appomattox.

Another speaker, Freeda Cathcart, used Lee’s own words as a rationale for removing the monument, noting that Lee wrote that erecting memorials to the defeated Confederacy would inhibit the union’s efforts to reconcile and that the site should serve as a type of peace memorial, rather than a war memorial.

The vote to remove the memorial was 5-0, with Mayor Sherman Lea, who has voiced his support for removing the monument, and council member Djuna Osborne absent from the meeting. The council did not discuss renaming Lee Plaza.

Other highlights from the more than three-and-a-half-hour-long meeting included:

n The council heard an update about the new bus station from Jackie Mayrosh, project manager from Spectrum design, and designer Nathan Harper. The council saw plans for the station, which will take up a city-owned parking lot between Salem and Norfolk avenues along Third Street Southwest.

n The council listened to a presentation from Tatiana Durant of No Justice No Peace and a leader of local Black Lives Matter demonstrations urging the city to discontinue support of the D.A.R.E. program in its schools. Durant said D.A.R.E. had “a 30-year history of being ineffective” at preventing drug abuse among youths and that funding should be redirected to nonpolice programs. Durant plans to speak to the Roanoke School Board in the future about eliminating school resource officers from public schools, as well.

n During the public comment portion, the council addressed concerns about the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation plan to cut funding from youth sports. Ed Sparrow, president of Greater Southwest Athletic Association, which is one of the four neighborhood clubs that operates youth sports in the city, noted that the $80,445 cut from youth sports constitutes 0.05% of Roanoke’s total budget.

Council members and City Manager Bob Cowell said that the city would continue to work with the clubs and make sure teams had fields and gyms where they could practice and play. The council also vowed to study the youth sports situation further later this summer and fall.

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993, was the paper’s music reporter from 2000-2007 and he currently writes the Dadline parenting column and is a general assignment features reporter.

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