FORT HAMILTON — Church officials Wednesday removed a memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that was first mounted to a tree outside St. Johns Episcopal Church in Fort Hamilton more than 100 years ago.
Officials with the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island took down the commemorative plaque after a wave of violence swept Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend when white nationalists and neo-Nazis descended on the city to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a park.
"Given all of the circumstances that we as a nation have experienced over the last week and several months — the rhetoric that is part of our American culture today — it became very clear to all of us that this reminder of an oppressive time in our history really needs to be righted," said Bishop Lawrence Provenzano at a Wednesday news conference. "That no one should [have to] walk by here, particularly members of the African-American community whose ancestors were the victims of slavery, and be reminded of the past."
The removal came at the urging of Lutheran Minister Khader El-Yateem, who is running for the 43rd District City Council seat. He said he feels the memorial has no place on city streets and should instead be preserved as a piece of the nation's history.
"General Lee needs to be in the history books, not our streets," El-Yateem told DNAinfo New York. "These are people who fought to preserve slavery and should not be celebrated. This is not about erasing history — it’s about making sure we remember it in the appropriate way."
The tablet pays homage to a maple tree planted by the general, who worshipped at the church during his time as a military engineer at the Fort Hamilton Army Base in the 1840s.
The memorial has been mounted to a maple tree in the church's yard for more than 100 years. (DNAinfo/Caroline Spivack)
Members with the New York chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the monument nearly 50 years after Lee led the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
“This tree was planted by General Robert Edward Lee while stationed at Fort Hamilton from 1842 to 1847,” the plaque states. “The tree has been restored and this tablet placed upon it by the New York Chapter United Daughters of The Confederacy. April 1912.”
The tree in the church yard, located on Fort Hamilton Parkway between 99th Street and Marine Avenue, is not the same Lee planted. In fact, it died and the current tree is the second to replace the original.
Workers are removing the plaque to the diocese's Garden City, Long Island archives where it will essentially be placed in storage — out of public view, church officials said.
The plaque's removal comes just over a week after the Army shot down calls to rename two streets on the nearby Fort Hamilton Army Base named for Confederate generals: General Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive. Officials at the base declined to comment.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted that he also asked acting U.S. Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy to rename Fort Hamilton Army Base streets with Confederate monikers.
I just asked the acting secretary of the @USArmy to remove confederate names from the streets of Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) August 16, 2017
At the Wednesday morning event, Provenzano denounced the Confederate figures and rebuffed President Donald Trump's Tuesday comments equating Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals to the nation's founding fathers.
"I hate to be the person who gives the president of the United States a history lesson, but Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson cannot be equated with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson," said Provenzano. "The issue really wasn't whether or not [they were] the owners of slaves, it’s about treasonous behavior. These generals fought against the United States and did so to preserve slavery. That in itself should be offensive to any thinking person."
The remnants of the plaque honoring Robert E. Lee. (DNAinfo/Caroline Spivack)
Not everyone was glad to see the tablet go, however, including one man who said he fought against Nazis in World War II and felt removing the plaque was akin to erasing history.
"This has been here for 100 years — it's part of our history," said Sheepshead Bay resident Bill Castigle, who frequents the Fort Hamilton Senior Recreation Center. "Thank God we live in America, but this is history. You can't change it."
A former parishioner of the church, which shuttered in September 2014, was glad to see the Lee marker removed.
"I'm thrilled about it being removed because we need to end racism and I think this is a gesture toward that," Bay Ridge resident Emily Hegarty, who was a church congregant from 2010-'12, told DNAinfo. "Gestures are important."