Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces

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The Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces (BRC) was a task force established by the Charlottesville City Council on May 2, 2016[1], following a recommendation by mayor Mike Signer.[2]

At the council's regular monthly meeting held on May 2, 2016, City Council extemporaneously created a commission to address the questions and concerns brought before Council regarding the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Later named the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces (BRC), eleven members were appointed after an extensive application process. A final report was presented to City Council at the December 19, 2016 regular meeting. Council members reviewed BRC’s recommendations at their January 17, 2017 regular meeting [3]

The commission was tasked with providing council with “options for telling the full story of Charlottesville’s history of race and for changing the City’s narrative through our public spaces.”[1] At its meetings, the commission has sought public input to decide whether monuments in city parks to Confederate generals (Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee) should be relocated or changed to reflect current values, and discussed ways to enhance other historic sites.

The majority of the commission voted to retain the Jackson and Lee statues in place but to re-contextualize them possibly by renaming the parks. A final report was presented to City Council on December 19, 2016.

At the City Council's February 6, 2017 regular meeting[4], council members voted to relocate the statue of Robert E. Lee and use the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission to redesign both parks.[5]

In 2017 City Council voted to rename Lee Park as Emancipation Park and Jackson Park as Justice Park.[6] In 2018 City Council changed the park names yet again, naming them Market Street Park and Court Square Park respectively.[7]


The idea for a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces originated with then Mayor Mike Signer.[8]

In March 2016, City Councillors Kristin Szakos and Wes Bellamy approached Mayor Signer with the suggestion that there was a "window of opportunity" for removing Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee Statue. A Danville, Va. Circuit Court trial judge had interpreted Virgnia's monument protection law to allow removing a Confederate flag from the Sutherlin Mansion, and Democratic Governor McCauliffe in his last year in office would be able to block the Republican controlled legislature from overturning the Danville ruling.[8]

Knowing the issue would be divisive, Signer hoped to slow things down and encourage consensus by referring the overall question of changing Charlottesville's historical narrative, which woud include what to do about the monuments, to "a commission of thoughtful citizens." They would engage with the community, listen and learn, and make recommendations to City Council.[8]

Signer later in his book Cry Havoc called his "hope to get a balanced set of members who were open-minded," naïve. Voting in a closed-door session Councillors Szakos and Bellamy pushed through bloc of candidates all of whom had expressed support for removing Confederate statues.[8]

Signer thought the commission rigged, handpicked to ensure a vote to remove the Lee monument (though he did not say so at the time).[8] To an outside observer, the Blue Ribbon Commission appeared packed with ideologues to the exclusion of better qualified applicants.[9]

The Commission confounded expectations, however: it took seriously its charge to listen to the community, and at least one member (Mason) to his own surprise changed his mind about removing the Lee monument. Mason voted to keep it where it stood and add context.[8] The Commission's final report (as described below) ended up offering alternatives, both of which would keep the Lee and Jackson monuments in Charlottesville.


On June 6, 2016, City Council appointed the following members to the Blue Ribbon Commission: [10]

Gordon Fields resigned from the Commission in August 2016 due to a health issue. Sue Lewis was appointed as his replacement.[11]


The Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces was divided into four subcommittees, each focusing on a specific charge from City Council:[10]

  1. Public Engagement - Responsibility: Develop engagement format for community forums. (Members: Dukes, Burruss)
  2. Case Studies - Responsibility: Research other cities who have taken on similar responsibilities as the the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces. (Members: Gathers, Lewis)
  3. Inventory of Historical Sites - Responsibility: Create an inventory of historical sites in the City of Charlottesville that are related to the City Council charge. (Members: Lloyd, Douglass)
  4. Historical Context and Background - Responsibility: Examine the full history of inventoried sites in Charlottesville and research histories that haven't been told. (Members: Mason, O'Bryant, Smith)


Initially, on November 1, 2016, the Blue Ribbon Commission voted 6-3 to recommend the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson stay in their respective parks.[12]

The Commission's Chair Don Gathers expressed his disappointment in the outcome.[13] At the next meeting on November 28, 2016 Gathers engineered a re-vote which resulted in the Commission instead offering City Council two alternatives in its Final Report.

One was to keep the Robert E. Lee sculpture in its park "on the condition that new design and/or reinterpretation transform its context and historical interpretation."[14] The other was moving the Lee statue elsewhere in the city (McIntire Park was a possibility) while preserving the Stonewall Jackson statue in place.[15]

The Commission recommended both statues remain in Charlottesville, because as Commissioner Mason explained:

To me, the statues do many different things -- they embody the myths of the Lost Cause (and represent Jim Crow) . . . these statues are for me this history, this unstated history, this history that is very painful ... But if we don't understand this history we don't understand the world in which we're living. And so for me, that's why these statues have to remain in Charlottesville, absolutely they have to remain in Charlottesville. [After August 12, 2017 Mason was to change his mind again].[8]

. The Commission also voted unanimously to rename Lee Park, and recommended:[14]

Related Initatives

The Blue Ribbon Commission's assessment of Lee and Jackson parks and other public spaces accelerated progress on several historic preservation initiatives in the city.[16]

City Council appropriated $80,000 for the rehabilitation of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery following a May 2016 rededication ceremony. [17]

In September 2016, the city’s Historic Resources Committee presented a plan to establish a park that would commemorate the history of Vinegar Hill to the Blue Ribbon Commission. [18]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Web. Resolution: Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, City of Charlottesville, retrieved Sept 2 2016.
  2. Web. Statement from Mayor Mike Signer on Charlottesville’s Confederate Memorials, Mike Signer, Press Release, City of Charlottesville, retrieved December 31, 2016.
  5. Web. "City parks to be redesigned, renamed along with Lee statue removal", Chris Suarez, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, February 7, 2017, retrieved February 8, 2017. Print. February 8, 2017 page A1.
  6. Web. Charlottesville City Council renames Lee, Jackson parks, Chris Suarez, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, June 5, 2017, retrieved August 2, 2017.
  7. Web. Charlottesville City Council changes the names of two renamed parks, Andrew Shurtleff, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, 7/16/2018, retrieved 1/04/2021.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 M. Signer, Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy Under Siege (Hachette Book Group 2020) ISBN 978-1-54173-615-3 pp.48; 55; 76
  9. Web. Commission Criticism: Do Handpicked Harbingers Fit City Council’s Agenda?, Samantha Barrs, C-VILLE Weekly, Portico Publications, June 29, 2016, retrieved Jan. 1, 2021.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Web. Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, City of Charlottesville, retrieved September 7, 2016.
  11. Web. "Sue Lewis appointed to commission on race and memorials", Chris Suarez, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, August 16, 2016, retrieved October 14 2016.
  12. Web. "Panel votes to recommend keeping statues in their parks", Chris Suarez, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, November 1, 2016, retrieved November 11, 2016.
  13. Web. ‘Lightning in a bottle:’ Statue Commission Chair Disappointed by Decision, Samantha Bsars, C-VILLE Weekly, Portico Publications, 11/06/2016, retrieved 1/4/2021.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Web. "City of Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces: Report to City Council (Draft), The Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, City of Charlottesville, November 10, 2016, retrieved November, 11 2016.
  15. H. Spencer, Summer of Hate: Charlottesville. U.S.A. (University of Virginia Press 2018) ISBN 978-0-8139-4208-7 pp.60-61 (as to Blue Ribbon Commission recomendations "evolving").
  16. Web. "Creation of blue ribbon panel boosts initiatives already underway in city", Chris Suarez, Daily Progress, Lee Enterprises, Sept 20 2016, retrieved Oct 14 2016.
  17. Web. "City Council Agenda: September 6, 2016", City of Charlottesville, September 2016, retrieved October 14, 2016.
  18. Web. "Vinegar Hill Park plans unveiled, Josh Mandell, September 1, 2016, retrieved October 14, 2016.

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