Zyahna Bryant was 15 years old when she decided to take down Robert E. Lee. In March of 2016, during her freshman year at Charlottesville High School, Bryant started a petition calling on City Council to rename Lee Park and to remove its monument to the slave-owning Confederate general.
Even at her young age, Bryant was already aware of racial inequities and segregation in Charlottesville. She first took note of color and class when she realized she was one of the few black students who attended her private pre-K and elementary school. And when she was only seven years old, her grandmother introduced her to political action during the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama. She helped her grandmother work the phones and escort people to the polls.
Bryant’s petition against Charlottesville’s Confederate statues was cited by Councilman Wes Bellamy as a catalyst for the May 2016 creation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces. By March of 2017, the City Council had considered the Commission’s report and voted three to two to remove the statues altogether. Several plaintiffs immediately sued and a Virginia state judge enjoined the town of Charlottesville from removing its statutes, pending the lawsuit. That summer, in July of 2017, the Ku Klux Klan protested the City’s plans. On the weekend of August 12, hundreds of alt-righters rallied in town to preserve the statues, leaving three people dead in their wake.
It's February, 2018 now and the statue of General Lee is still standing, covered by a black, plastic tarp. Nearby, in the old Capital of the Confederate States, Democrats in Richmond recently introduced a bill in the Virginia state legislature that would grant Charlottesville the local power to permanently remove its Confederate statues.
In a series of recent phone calls, Bryant told me about her essential role in Charlottesville and American history. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Becoming Politically Active
Honestly, I hadn’t paid much attention to the Robert E. Lee statue when I was young. I remember noticing it in elementary school as I was walking around McGuffey (an Art Center next to the old Lee Park). I asked a student teacher about it who told me it was General Lee. But it wasn’t until 5th or 6th grade, when we started learning about the Civil War, that I started to really understand. Everything they taught us at school about the Civil War was so romanticized. So I decided to do my own research, which is something my family has always encouraged me to do. Once I learned the truth about slavery and the Civil War, I felt disgusted that my city wanted to display a statue that celebrated my ancestors’ pain.
Armed with this knowledge, I started getting into community organization and activism. The biggest catalyst was the murder of Trayvon Martin. I had followed the entire trial of George Zimmerman. I was hopeful justice would be served and start some radical institutional change. Of course, I was wrong. After Zimmerman was acquitted, I felt defeated. But I knew I needed to do something. And I knew that there were other people in my city who shared my feelings. We just weren’t connected or organized.
To fix that, I started making signs and hanging them up around my grandmother’s front yard. They said things like “Honk for Justice” and “Justice for Trayvon.” Some neighbors stopped by and asked if I was planning a demonstration. I wasn’t. But that inspired me. I went on my Facebook and asked people to meet me downtown on the corner of Main Street in front of the Federal Courthouse building. My post was shared by quite a few people. When I arrived that evening, a few people were already there with their signs. There were people of all walks of life, races, and roles in the community—from clergy to council people to local activists. A little over 50 people participated. It was empowering and set me on a path for more activism.
The Petition Against the Lee Statue
I began interning at City Hall during the summer of 2015, which was around the time that Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole outside of South Carolina State House and removed a Confederate flag. When I saw that, I thought, Wow, this is crazy. Seeing Newsome do something so bold helped me realize I could make a difference in Charlottesville. Thanks to a school assignment on “how to make a change,” I took a even closer look at public spaces like parks and thought about how we could change them to be more inclusive.
That paper was where my idea for creating the petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue came from. In March 2016, during my freshman year of high school, I wrote a letter to City Council. The subject heading was “Change the Name of Lee Park and Remove the Statue.” I sent it to all the councilors. Then I sent it to various local media. Then I shared it on my Facebook.
I wrote the petition. But other people did all the work posting it and spreading it around. It didn’t take long before my petition was everywhere. It caught on like wildfire. A week after I posted it, someone sent a Facebook request for me to speak about the statue at a press conference alongside former Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, pastors, and community members.
I didn’t expect City Council to bulldoze the statue immediately. I knew it’d be a process. But I never imagined how big of a deal it was going to be, either.
The Unite the Right Rally
The alt-right rally and the subsequent murder of Heather Heyer was really sad. But it wasn’t totally unprecedented for Charlottesville. This city is rooted in white supremacy. We had more than enough evidence to know that really bad things were gonna happen and people were gonna die at this rally. People should have been more realistic from the get-go. Charlottesville is not just some wonderful city and this was not an isolated issue for activists who are here on the ground working for racial equality.
People were also surprised by Donald Trump’s statement that “both sides” share the blame for the tragedy that took place. But I wasn’t. I don’t listen to anything that Trump has to say, I don’t care. I wasn’t expecting a great statement from the President after the weekend. When I saw people on my Facebook page being like, “How could he say that?” I’m like, “Did you not hear everything else he’s said? What were you expecting?”
Where Do We Go from Here
I still think the statues need to go. The longer we take to remove them, the more complicated and complex it gets. But I want people to understand that it’s bigger than the statues.
Black activists or people who work for racial justice can sometimes be seen as one-dimensional. Overall, the work I’ve tried to do is much bigger than the Robert E. Lee statue situation. Our education and community knowledge are more important to me than any statue. Going forward, my energy is focussed on closing the achievement gap and getting more black kids in honors and AP courses.
I’m a junior now. It’s hard to say I wanna be a full-time activist. It’s not realistic for me, because activism is a full-time job that doesn’t pay full-time. But my love is definitely in community and grassroots organizing. Going through the whole process of writing the petition for the statue has shown me as a young activist that one action can have meaning. We can all make change.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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