“In the spring of 2016, I did something that scared me, but something that I knew needed to be done. I wrote the petition, a letter to the editor and city council, calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of the park, formerly known as Robert E. Lee Park. I was 15.”
Perhaps there is something about Central Virginia that inspires young African American women to act boldly, creating national impacts. In the spring of 1951, Barbara Johns, dissatisfied with the inequities that existed in her racially segregated Prince Edward County high school, organized a student strike. That action led to a lawsuit that, joined with other cases, resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision; public school segregation laws were declared unconstitutional.
Sixty-five years later, in the spring of 2016, fifteen-year-old high school student Zyahna Bryant, a Charlottesville native, drafted a petition for the removal of her city’s statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Her petition also called for renaming the Lee Park where the statue stood. In an interview with the news organization Vice, Bryant observed: “Going through the whole process of writing the petition … has shown me as a young activist that one action can have meaning. We all can make change.” She also recalled the first time she pondered the Robert E. Lee statue: “[I]t wasn’t until 5th or 6th grade, when we started learning about the Civil War that I started to really understand. … 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.” The seed was planted. A few years later, as a high school freshman, Bryant took to heart an assignment on “how to make a change,” and the Robert E. Lee petition was born.
The petition proved to be a powerful catalyst, not only in her own community but also across the country, for those who agreed with Bryant’s goals. The City of Charlottesville responded by creating a commission to consider the statue’s removal and ultimately voted to remove it. That triggered supporters of the Confederate monuments, generally, and the Lee statue, particularly, to fight back. In August 2017. white supremacists descended upon the city in an effort to preserve the statue, and anti-racists rallied to counter protest. Sadly, one person was murdered and several others injured when one of the white supremacists used his car as a weapon against a group of counter protesters.
Though the city voted to remove the statue, Virginia law intervened to prevent its removal. However, in March 2020, the Virginia legislature finally passed a bill that allows local governments to remove statues and monuments. Meanwhile, the Lee Park has been renamed twice, first as Emancipation Park and then as Market Street Park; as of this writing, removal of the Lee statue is still tied up in a court challenge.
In a 2018 op-ed, Bryan explained that “[i]t has always been bigger than just a statue. There is truly a very long and intricate history of white supremacy that lurks beneath the bricks and sidewalks that the people of Charlottesville inhabit daily. … The debate over Confederate monuments in public spaces only mirrors the larger question of what community means, causing us to really reflect on the messages that we are transmitting about community through our public spaces.”
When Bryant drafted her petition, she was already a seasoned organizer. In 2013, at the age of twelve, she had organized a protest for justice in response to the verdict that freed the killer of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. In an interview with Charlottesville City Schools, Bryant stated: “I know that … the more you help[ ] out, the better you can make the world, just from doing simple things.” Through her simple act of standing up for Martin, Bryant had started making the world better.
Later Bryant founded her high school’s Black Student Union and joined Black Lives Matter. As an honors student, she homed in on the racial achievement gap in schools. Bryant experienced the loneliness that many high-achieving African American students face as they move through the American public school system. Citing her own experience in an interview with The New York Times, Bryant explained: “you enter into this whole sunken place when you get into honors and A.P. courses.” In addition to the loneliness, she saw first-hand how gaining access to honors level courses just revealed new levels of systemic racism. You find out that “[t]here’s a whole system you’re up against. [Yet], [e]very small victory just cuts a hole into that system reminding you how fragile it is, but it’s still there.”
Bryant’s activism has been recognized widely by a variety of organizations and institutions. In 2018, she was awarded the Student Stowe Prize by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the Princeton Prize in Race Relations by Princeton University, and the Yale Basset Award for Community Engagement by Yale University. Also, Bryant was recognized by BET’s Black Girls Rock! and was listed as one of Charlottesville’s “Powerful People” by the local publication C-Ville Weekly. Bryant published her first book, Reclaim: A Collection of Poetry and Essays in 2019. She was appointed to the Virginia African American Advisory Board by Governor Ralph Northam in 2019. In 2020, BET named Bryant to its Future 40 list of African Americans engaging in substantive change.
In an interview with the organization Teaching Tolerance, Bryant cautioned: “If we don’t have people who are standing their ground and continuing to seek truth in this fight for justice, then people like me who are young, black and female will continue to be marginalized in their own efforts. Another part of making the world better is acknowledging our past.”
“Before we can heal as a community, and as a nation, we must truly reckon with our past and call out white supremacy in all its forms.”
As of the spring 2020 Bryant is a rising second-year student at the University of Virginia, where she serves on the Council on UVA-Community Partnerships. Like Johns before her, she pushes forward, calling out injustices and delivering dignity.