Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, has become the focus of national and international media attention after this weekend’s marches, protests, and attacks at a “Unite the Right” rally led by white nationalist groups. Demonstrators and counter-protesters fought in and around the one-block-square park in downtown Charlottesville, which features, not coincidentally, a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Emancipation Park as locus for violence cannot be separated from its history (or its oxidized monument to that history). As Megan Garber writes for CityLab, Charlottesville is rich with landmarks and reminders of its Confederate past—not only in Emancipation Park.
Previously known as Lee Park, the name was officially changed in June 2017, a few months after Charlottesville’s city council voted to remove the statue. (The council also voted to remove a similar monument to Confederate general Stonewall Jackson from the city’s Justice, then “Jackson,” Park.) Opponents of the statues’ removal have sued the city, arguing the city doesn’t, under Virginia state law, have the right to remove the monuments. That case is currently in state court.
The name changes and proposed removals may be just the beginning of the changes ahead: Charlottesville’s Parks and Recreation Department has issued a request for proposals for a redesign of both parks. Emancipation Park and Justice Park are both situated along the downtown Mall, a pedestrian space and successful revitalization effort designed in the mid-1970s by renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.
The RFPs seek a new master plan that will better connect the two green spaces—which are currently split by Jefferson Street, two city blocks apart—and accomplish the following:
Redesign and transform Justice Park (formally known as Jackson Park) through the addition of a new memorial to Charlottesville’s enslaved population while retaining its ability to function as a community gathering space.
Redesign Emancipation Park (formally known as Lee Park), both inclusive and independent of the statue of Robert E. Lee while retaining its ability to function as a community gathering space.
Replace the current plaque at the slave auction block with one that is legible.
Identify and acknowledge the site of the Freedman’s Bureau.
One notable inclusion is the directive to “become familiar with” the proposed Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and incorporate elements of that project into the Charlottesville design. The Alabama project in question, which is being funded by the Equal Justice Initiative, will commemorate victims of lynching and racially motivated terror with a concept based in part around a series of pillars, each marking a county in the U.S. where lynching has taken place.
Applicants will need to submit two plans, with options that include and do not include the two statues. (One of the options that’s already on the table is to move the statues to the larger McIntire Park north of downtown and “confront history there in a new context.”) According to Appendix A of the RFP, the statues cannot remain as they currently stand, if they are allowed to stand at all:
This commission suggests that the Lee and Jackson statues belong in no public space unless their history as symbols of white supremacy is revealed and their respective parks transformed in ways that promote freedom and equity in our community.
According to Brian Daly, the Director of the Charlottesville Parks & Recreation Department, proposals are due this Thursday, August 16. Daly had no comment on whether or not the events of this weekend had changed the city’s timeline for redevelopment and redesign, but he said the process would follow standard procedures (the Virginia Public Procurement Act), and a team will evaluate the proposals and follow city and state proposals to award the commission.
Daly also reported that there wasn’t much physical damage to the existing park infrastructure over the weekend.
The project proposal—spurred by a Blue Ribbon Commission report from August 2016 on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces—imagines a “new public history... accomplished by new public art, new interpretive narratives, creative place-making initiatives, and wayfinding signs.”
In addition to designing to improve civic engagement and avoid future auto-related deaths, any new proposals could take the tragic events of the weekend as an additional inspiration to create a public space that rejects bigotry.
The BRC’s Final Report acknowledged that far too often Charlottesville’s public spaces and histories have ignored, silenced or suppressed African American history, as well as the legacy of white supremacy and the unimaginable harms done under that cause.
This redesign offers Charlottesville an opportunity to recast these important public spaces and display a fuller and more accurate depiction of collective history.