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Across Virginia, officials weigh removing Confederate icons
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Across Virginia, officials weigh removing Confederate icons

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Racial Injustice Confederate Monuments

Crews removed the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors statue in Richmond’s Libby Hill Park on July 8.

RICHMOND — From Winchester in the northwest to Williamsburg in the southeast, communities across Virginia are finally grappling with whether to renounce their veneration of the Confederacy, more than 150 years after the Civil War ended.

Many of the statues and monuments that still dot courthouse lawns and traffic circles, commemorating Southern troops and leaders, were erected in the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century or as the civil rights movement gained strength in the 1960s.

This summer, some of them are starting to fall.

“This is a unique moment and a politically perishable one,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “That is why (activists and political leaders) are acting now. It’s not going to last — for them it’s an opportunity without going through a legalistic process at a time when they know they can.”

Virginia has more Confederate statues than any other state, according to Julie V. Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The department’s comprehensive census reports 386 monuments and markers, among other sites.

That list, which Langan said could have missed a few, doesn’t include Confederate-named schools, highways, parks, bridges, counties, cities, lakes, dams, roads and military bases.

The nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project is tracking which monuments have come down and which ones are under review. About 14 of the 109 Confederate statues that VPAP counted have been removed or are the topic of public discussion about whether to remove them.

There are two reasons for the spate of actions across the commonwealth: The Black Lives Matter movement, which has energized millions in the United States to focus on systemic racism, and a decision this spring by the Virginia General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to overturn decades-old prohibitions on the removal of Confederate war memorials, allowing local governments for the first time to remove, relocate or contextualize monuments, starting this month.

But before the calendar even turned to July, the city of Alexandria awoke June 2 to discover that the long-controversial “Appomattox” statue, which stood in the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets for 131 years, was being removed by its owner, the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The organization this month also requested the return of its 112-year-old statue of a Confederate soldier from its place in front of the Loudoun County courthouse in Leesburg. It was taken down July 21.

Public safety concerns drove Norfolk to take down its Confederate soldier statue in June, days after protesters in Portsmouth tackled Confederate soldiers on that city’s monument, one of which fell and seriously injured one man. The Farmville Town Council voted to remove its Confederate statue that month, also citing concerns about public safety.

Most prominently, Richmond’s mayor ordered the removal of the statues of the Southern general Stonewall Jackson, Confederate naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, while protesters pulled down the statue of the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Only the grandest and oldest monument in the city — to Gen. Robert E. Lee, which towers 60 feet over state-owned land — remains while its future is debated in court.

And on July 23, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) ordered the statue of Lee and seven busts of Confederate figures removed from the Capitol’s Old House Chamber overnight, saying in a statement that the commonwealth’s story “extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants.”

“Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the Commonwealth’s whole history,” she wrote.

The official removal of these statues elsewhere, however, will not be quick. The new state law requires 30 days’ public notice that a city council, county commission or other elected body intends to take action. A public hearing must be held, and then, if the elected body votes to remove it, the monument must be offered to a museum, historical society, government or military battlefield.

Former Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, who now teaches at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University, said he supports the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, but added that the “rush to remove everything from the 1861-to-65 period is not a positive thing.”

“My preference has always been to put them in context,” Bolling said of the monuments. “Do we remove these monuments because they make us uncomfortable? Let’s explain them, and erect a monument in their midst to Doug Wilder, the first African American governor in the country, to Barbara Johns,” who as a teenager led a student walkout that became one of the cases that made up Brown v. Board of Education.

“That’s who we used to be and this is who we are now,” Bolling said. “But I fear we’ve lost the opportunity to tell the full Virginia story.”

Schools are also taking on name changes, as Northam has urged.

Prince William’s Stonewall Middle School will become Unity Braxton Middle School, while the night of July 23, the Fairfax County School Board voted to rename Robert E. Lee High for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. A divided Hanover County School Board voted this month to rename Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

Loudoun County High School axed the Confederate-inspired nickname the “Raiders” and its mascot, a drawing of a soldier from a battalion led by Confederate commander John S. Mosby.

Several universities are also rethinking building names, or in the case of Washington and Lee University, the school’s name itself.

Private reminders of the Confederacy, too, are coming down.

The owners of the Stonewall Jackson Inn in Harrisonburg announced they’re changing the name of that establishment. Becca and Joel Graham, who bought the bed-and-breakfast last August, said they always intended to change the name — especially since Jackson had no connection to the site.

The name “feels more like a celebration of the legacy of the Confederacy, and for many people, what that represents is slavery,” Joel Graham said.

Becca Graham added that there “definitely has been a fair share of pushback from Rockingham County,” although she said town residents largely support the decision.

The changes have at times prompted unrest.

Protesters in Shenandoah County, armed with a 4,000-signature petition, objected to the school board’s decision this month to rename Stonewall Jackson High School and Ashby Lee Elementary School, while also scrapping North Fork Middle School’s rebel mascot.

Shenandoah County School Board chair Karen S. Whetzel, who is also a former principal at the high school and librarian at the elementary school, said the board wanted to take action based on a previous resolution condemning racism and supporting inclusivity.

The board voted 5 to 1 to “retire” the names after the upcoming school year. Many, but not all, in the community expressed displeasure, but the board will not revisit the vote, she said.

“For a lot of people, it was ‘this is my school and you’re attempting to erase history,’ and others talked about their ancestors who fought in the Civil War,” Whetzel said.

But former graduates had sought the change months earlier, she said.

“I’ve worked in Shenandoah public schools for 38 years, and change comes slowly here,” she said.

Others would like to speed up the pace.

A Culpeper philanthropist is offering that county $50,000 to remove its statue immediately — and if that’s not enough, he’ll consider giving more.

Joe Daniel said that he doesn’t expect an easy time persuading county leaders to take it down but that he wanted to take the cost issue off the table.

“The statue was placed where the slave auction was held, as far as I can determine. The symbolism of it is quite evident,” Daniel said July 22. “It’s not a symbol of the (ordinary) soldiers — it’s a symbol in many, many ways of Jim Crow-ism.”

While counterprotesters have turned up at Richmond’s monuments, and supporters of the memorials are easily found on social media, officials around the state report few confrontations — with one exception.

In southwest Virginia’s Floyd County, the elections board is so worried about a possible backlash that its members are urging the county board of supervisors not to put a referendum on the local statue on the ballot this November. The board is set to decide that issue July 21.

Just last month, a Juneteenth vigil there in memory of George Floyd, who died in May while beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, attracted counterprotesters and hecklers, with one man arrested and charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and assault, according to local news reports.

The first black mayor of the town of Winchester, John David Smith Jr., said that neither he nor most African American residents care about the Confederate statue in their midst, or the Confederate street and building names. What need to be addressed are the underlying issues, he said.

“This all started with a discussion on racism, and the subject has changed to statues,” said Smith, who is also a businessman.

“People say we can do both, and we could, but we’re not. . . . I’m not worried about a stupid statue. I am worried about the guy in a pickup truck who pulls up next to me flying a Confederate flag.”

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