Planned Rally by White Nationalists Has College Town on Edge

The University of Virginia Medical Center has canceled all elective surgery — standard procedure in preparation for events that could lead to mass casualties. Around town, some businesses plan to close.

“This whole thing feels like the prep to a Wild West shootout where the businesses shutter and the women shoo their children upstairs,” said Phillip Fassieux, 36, as he munched on an egg bagel at Bodo’s, a few blocks from the Lee statue. “This isn’t the wild, wild West. This is modern-day Charlottesville, where we’re supposed to be better suited to engage with each other,” he said.

With the university, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, as its centerpiece, Charlottesville is a politically progressive city; nearly 80 percent of voters here cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race.

But it is also a city steeped in Southern history, one that still wrestles with the legacy of slavery. According to Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the university, 52 percent of the residents of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County — 14,000 people in all — were enslaved during the Civil War. Jefferson, still revered here, was himself a slave owner.

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Members of the Ku Klux Klan were escorted out of a planned rally last month in Charlottesville.

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Chet Strange/Getty Images

Today, African-Americans make up 19 percent of the city’s population, and gentrification is pushing many of them out, Ms. Schmidt said. The fight over the Lee statue — in a downtown park that was called Lee Park until it was recently renamed Emancipation Park — has opened up old wounds and brought simmering tensions over race to the fore.

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Eugene Williams, 89, a former head of the local N.A.A.C.P., served sweet tea on the front porch of his house on Ridge Street one day this week and recalled the days when he was not allowed to dine at local restaurants. He favors keeping the Lee statue because he wants people to remember the Jim Crow era.

“This statue has a lesson to teach us,” he said.

The debate over the statue began about a year and a half ago, when an African-American high school student here started a petition to have it removed. Wes Bellamy, the city’s vice mayor and the only black member of the City Council, took up the cause, and the Council set up a commission. After public hearings, it recommended that the statue either be relocated to another park, or that the city add historical context so that the monument could “transform in place.”

Instead, City Council members voted 3 to 2 in April to sell the statue. The next month, a judge issued an injunction, keeping the statue in place for six months.

“Charlottesville kind of made itself a target by deciding they wanted to remove this statue, and by stringing the whole thing out,” said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who is planning to give a talk on free speech Saturday as part of a “day of reflective conversation” organized by the university.

Mr. Bellamy, 30, has himself become a target; he said in an interview that he has been receiving death threats. “When you have a black, young African-American vice mayor, in their eyes, who was getting too big for his breeches, they want to send a message,” he said. “They call me every kind of N-word you can think of.”

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The conflict drew the attention of two white nationalists — Richard B. Spencer and Jason Kessler, both University of Virginia graduates. In May, Mr. Spencer, who gained national notoriety after the election of President Trump, led a gathering of torch-wielding protesters to the statue, which depicts Lee on horseback. At a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8, the state police used pepper spray to disperse protesters, officials said.

Mr. Kessler, who organized the event on Saturday and calls himself a “white advocate,” said in an interview that his goal was to “de-stigmatize white advocacy so that white people can stand up for their interests just like any other identity group.”

In the run-up to Saturday, there has been confusion over where, precisely, the Unite the Right rally will take place. City officials denied Mr. Kessler’s request to hold it in Emancipation Park, and instead granted a permit for a bigger park. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Kessler, seeking to keep the demonstration at Emancipation Park, as originally planned.

But if the city seems seized with anxiety, there is also a sense of determination.

“Charlottesville is mobilizing,” said Mimi Arbeit, a community activist who is helping to organize counterdemonstrations. “We cannot allow the rise of white supremacy. Ignoring the Klan in the 1920s is precisely what allowed them to terrorize and murder black people in Charlottesville. We cannot allow that history to be repeated.”

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