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Confederate monument melted down to create new, more inclusive public art

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We have watched as communities across the American South have removed Confederate monuments from public spaces in recent years. Some have gone to museums. Others are locked away in storage. But one particularly controversial statue from Charlottesville, Va., is on a different journey - to be completely transformed into something new. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: A massive bronze sculpture of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in uniform astride his horse traveler stood in a downtown Charlottesville park for nearly a century. It was at the center of a deadly white nationalist rally in 2017, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists tried to stop the city's plans to remove the statue. It finally came down in 2021.

(APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: Charlottesville prevailed in a prolonged legal battle with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups and donated the Lee statue to a coalition that proposed to melt it down and create a more inclusive public art installation.

JALANE SCHMIDT: We want to transform something that has been toxic in the Charlottesville community.

ELLIOTT: Jalane Schmidt is a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia and one of the project's organizers.

SCHMIDT: People are willing to die for symbols, and as we saw in Charlottesville, they're willing to kill for them, too.

ELLIOTT: Lawsuits to stop the project failed, and last weekend organizers moved forward with great secrecy to disassemble and melt down the Lee monument.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORCH HISSING)

ELLIOTT: The work is being done at an out-of-state foundry. NPR agreed not to reveal its location or the identity of the workers because they fear repercussions. They use a torch to score the head of the statue in the pattern of a death mask. Lee's face falls to the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)

ELLIOTT: The symbolism is poignant for Andrea Douglas. She directs the Jefferson School African American Cultural Center in Charlottesville, which is leading the project.

ANDREA DOUGLAS: The act of mythmaking that has occurred around Robert E. Lee - removing his face is emblematic of the kind of removal of that kind of myth.

ELLIOTT: The project is called Swords Into Plowshares, taken from a Bible verse in the Book of Isaiah. A furnace is set up in a side yard of the foundry, using propane and forced air to top 2,000 degrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF FURNACE WHIRRING)

ELLIOTT: Workers feed pieces of the verdigris statue, including General Lee's saber, into a large vessel inside the furnace called a crucible.

DOUGLAS: We are turning swords into something else. You know, that saber is the object of violence, and it was the object of power. It's the object of conquest.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh.

ELLIOTT: Just after nightfall, foundry workers remove the crucible, glowing a bright red-orange, and pour the steaming molten bronze into molds. Jalane Schmidt says the most exciting part for her is seeing the new ingots created.

SCHMIDT: Because that's about going forward. That's, you know - oh, here they are now. They're flipping it out. See here. You know, turn that upside down, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL RATTLING)

SCHMIDT: It's like a banana bread pan, you know, or a meatloaf or something. You got to knock it out of there. Oh, there it is.

ELLIOTT: For security reasons, few people were invited to watch. Among them is Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, who feels the weight of what she's witnessing.

ASH-LEE WOODARD HENDERSON: Oh, my gosh. I mean, as, like, a proud Black Appalachian who was born and raised in the South, I know this to be more than just a symbolic moment.

ELLIOTT: Henderson is co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, which has long been an incubator for labor and civil rights activists. She sees opportunity in this moment.

WOODARD HENDERSON: I'm most excited about what it looks like to repair, what reparations looks like for folks in Charlottesville, what it looks like to tell this new story. I'm hyped. I feel excited. I think this is a joyful occasion in a really dire strait of political nastiness that we've been surviving.

ELLIOTT: For Methodist minister Isaac Collins, the deadly white nationalist violence in Charlottesville was a turning point for the nation and says it's surreal to see the focal point of that episode disassembled.

ISAAC COLLINS: You know, I was thinking Humpty Dumpty couldn't be put back together again. I was like, it's over, baby. This thing is never going back up. We still have a lot of work to do, but this statue that has cost us so much violence, so much hurt, so much bloodshed - it's gone, and it's never going to be put back together the way it was.

ELLIOTT: The melting down of the Lee statue will take weeks. It weighed nearly 10,000 pounds. Organizers say the next step will be choosing an artist who will craft the bronze ingots into a new art form to be displayed in Charlottesville. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.