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Monumental debate: Community leaders weigh in on Confederate symbols in Dan River Region

Monumental debate: Community leaders weigh in on Confederate symbols in Dan River Region

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CHATHAM — Saturday’s rally in Charlottesville has prompted many cities across the nation to remove Confederate monuments, or begin discussing the value of keeping those monuments in public spaces in their communities.

That discussion has been ongoing locally for years, thanks to Danville’s and Pittsylvania County’s rich histories, which stretches back before the Civil War. In fact, the city of Danville is known to Civil War buffs as the Last Capital of the Confederacy.

For some, the monuments are as much a link to local history as it is to family.

Both great-great-grandfathers of Pittsylvania Historical Society President Larry Aaron fought in the war for the Confederate army.

“If I think I’m proud of my great-great-grandfathers’ service in the Confederate army, why don’t I have a right to feel that way?” he said.

Some people feel their heritage has been unfairly singled out. Among them is Mary Catherine Plaster, former chapter president of Rawley Martin Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“I do not understand one group’s desire to honor their forebears, while another has to destroy all memory of theirs,” she said. “I do not understand it.”

Others, such as the Rev. Avon Keen, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., view the monuments as outright offensive.

“All these statues represent people who fought to overthrow the U.S. government to maintain slavery, and that needs to be said,” he said. “If your heritage was hate, then it needs to be said that that’s what you’re trying to preserve. We should come together as a nation and say we cannot accept this. It should have ended with the Civil War.”

Throughout the war, Danville supported the Confederacy by transforming its tobacco warehouses into hospitals, factories and prisons. It was considered especially useful due to the presence of the Richmond and Danville Railroad. The railroad company built a telegraph line, and bought the majority of stock in the Piedmont Railroad, which ran from Danville to Greensboro, North Carolina. The Confederate government also located military and government support facilities in the city — the Danville Arsenal and the Danville Depot. The depot was operated by Maj. William T. Sutherlin, whose name will be familiar to many locals driving down Main Street in Danville, as his mansion now houses the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History.

The Sutherlin Mansion was the home and office of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from April 3 to 10, 1865, and he wrote and delivered his final proclamation from the house on April 5. Flown over the home was a reproduction of a Confederate flag — officially known as the Third National Flag of the Confederacy — for nearly 20 years until Aug. 6, 2015. The flag was removed minutes after Danville City Council approved a new city ordinance that allowed only the city, state and national flags flown on city-owned property. Ever since, people have gathered there every Saturday morning to wave flags like the one that came down in front of the museum to protest its removal.

Pittsylvania County had several Confederate military companies, and many of their descendents still live in the area. It is also the home of the world’s largest Confederate flag reproduction.

Jeffrey Compton owns the property in Blairs, which holds the 80-foot wide flag, but did not return several phone calls from the Register & Bee.

Until a few years ago, two chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy called Danville and Pittsylvania County home. The Danville chapter still stands, though several members of its leadership refused to be interviewed.

The Rawley Martin chapter, once was based in Chatham, folded a few years ago due to low numbers of young members. Plaster said she joined because everyone in her family, for as far back as she could think, had been a member.

In 1899, their chapter helped Civil War veterans to pay for a statue to honor their fellow soldiers killed in the war. That statue was placed on June 9, 1899, and still stands between the Pittsylvania County Courthouse and the Sheriff’s Office.

“It was mostly paid for by contributions from the community,” Plaster said, “but the United Daughters of the Confederacy ended up being the caretaker for the statue.”

When the chapter folded, it transferred the funds for the statue to the Pittsylvania Historical Society to pay for “anything the statue might need,” Plaster said. However, the county is responsible for doing things like cutting the grass around the statue, since it sits on what is believed to be county property.

Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman said that county staff is researching to determine ownership for the monument, and whether it is actually on county property.

Many localities, including Charlottesville, have looked at moving the statues, destroying them, or adding contextual markers to the statues to make clear that they are not honoring people like General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes.

Many who are descended from the Confederate soldiers think that removing or moving the monuments are an affront to their ancestors.

Aaron is one of them, although he recognizes that others find them offensive.

“I don’t think the monument in Chatham should be taken down. What difference does it make where it is?” Aaron asked. “People have different opinions about them. Some of them are memorials.”

Plaster echoed that sentiment, though she dislikes the comparisons to Nazi Germany that are so often found in anti-Confederate discussions.

“I don’t know anybody who ever said to Germany what they should do, other than to please teach their children at school,” she said. “I don’t see why we’re compared to Hitler. We never tried to exterminate a race. It doesn’t make sense.”

Disagreeing is Avon Keen, who was in Charlottesville on Saturday. Keen is president of the Virginia Southern Christian Leadership Conference

“The confederacy is deeply rooted in white supremacy — It should be relegated for the museum if you allow them to exist,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They should not be displayed publicly, especially now.”

Aaron thought that much of the debate over the Confederate flag and monuments had been ruined by others co-opting the symbols for hatred.

“What they’ve [white supremacists have] done is they’ve ruined this debate for everybody,” Aaron said. “I’m just interested in the history. I just like to study the battles and all that stuff. To me, this whole thing is very complicated. I think there’s an attempt by a lot of folks to just break it up into sound bites, and not explore the complexity of it. I think that has made matters a lot worse.”

Keen also thought that there was a lack of education going on in the area, mainly regarding the culture of white supremacy before and after the war.

“One of the problems we’ve had is that the education system won’t go in depth and make it clear what the Civil War came from,” Keen said. “When you look at it, it’s clear that it’s deeply rooted in hatred in the southern states.”

Smitherman said that no active conversations were going on regarding the future of the monument that stands in Chatham.

“It’s my understanding there are some code of Virginia laws about what localities can do with these monuments,” Smitherman said in a phone interview. “We are trying to understand what that means for this particular monument.”

On the proper reaction to the divisiveness, Danville Vice Mayor Alonzo Jones said: “It’s so disappointing to me that so much hate seems to be showing itself, and I think I share with (Danville) City Council, that the more love we can put towards the community here in Danville, the more love wins.”

Danville resident Ebony Guy said at Danville’s Sunday vigil, held in response to the deaths a day before in Charlottesville, that she has felt an escalation in hate since the Confederate flag controversy in 2015, and asked council members if there was a way to remove the Confederate flags flying on private property, or at least reduced in number and size.

City Councilmember Larry Campbell said at the vigil that the issue is discussed often.

“I’ve had realtors come to me and say [the Confederate flags] are affecting home sales,” Campbell said at the vigil. “But the flags are on private property.”

Campbell did say that he would look into what possibilities there are to curtail the size of the flags and heights of the flagpoles.

Keen bristled at the idea of a compromise to allow fewer flags or even smaller flags.

“Those flags and statues need to be taken down,” Keen said firmly. “It should be one united voice — city officials, the white house, your senators, your congressmen — to say remove Confederate flags all over the United States.”

Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at or (434) 791-7981.

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