By Bobby Bordelon
Reporting by Aila Boyd, Taylor Boyd, and Shawn Nowlin
Since the United States once again began to reconsider confederate monuments after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minnesota, several Virginia cities are re-examining their relationship to their past legacies with the confederacy.
Virginia has taken steps to removing one prominent confederate statue in hallowed halls – in Washington D.C., the Commission for Historical Statues voted to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the National Statuary Hall. In the hall, each state is represented by statues of two prominent citizens for display.
“The Robert E. Lee statue does not tell our full and true story, and it has never represented all Virginians,” said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. “I commend the Commission’s righteous decision to remove this relic from the halls of Congress and replace it with a new statue that embodies the inclusive Commonwealth we aspire to be.”
In the National Statuary Hall Collection, Virginia is currently represented by President George Washington and Lee, while West Virginia is represented by Democratic minority leader, and former confederate solider, John Kenna and West Virginia founder Francis Harrison Pierpont. The commission will now begin work to recommend to the General Assembly a prominent Virginia citizen of historic renown or renowned for distinguished civil or military to be commemorated in National Statuary Hall Collection. Northam will transmit the commission’s decision to the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress and request the immediate removal of the Robert E. Lee statue.
The commission will next consider both who will replace Lee as a prominent Virginian citizen and will seek a sculptor for the new statue, with preference given to a sculptor from Virginia. The Lee statue will also not be destroyed – the commission will soon recommend a suitable state, local, or private nonprofit history museum in the Commonwealth for its final home.
As part of this legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly, localities would be allowed to consider how to move forward with any possible changes to statues. The Botetourt County Board of Supervisors examined the ways the county could move or remove local confederate monuments during a recent meeting.
“They set up a process by which local governments can either hear from the people via referendum and/or simply through a public hearing process,” said Mark Popovich, who filled in for Michael Lockaby as the county’s attorney. “The referendum process is limited to being done prior to any public hearings. If it is your wish to have a referendum on the issue of potentially removing any Confederate monument within the county, that would have to be your first step. That will require getting the appropriate question on the ballot, working with your electoral board to get that taken care of.”
Popovich went on to note that the board does not have to utilize the referendum option because of the public hearing process.
“Even if you do the referendum first, you’d still have to hold a public hearing,” he said. “The question is: do you want someone being able to actually push the button, fill in the circle.”
The referendum process would likely lead to more input from county citizens because normally only a small portion of the public attend meetings.
“This particular issue in this day and age would probably bring a large amount of folks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d capture what you can potentially capture in a full-blown referendum,” said Popovich.
“During this time of social unrest, there are various discussions taking place associated with historical markers that, based upon personal views, symbolize many things,” said Gary Larrowe, Botetourt County administrator. “For some, the views associated with certain historical names and markers seem to be a painful reminder of the past, present, and the future. For some, the same elements are viewed as history that cannot be erased. Discussions are taking place across the Commonwealth and nation in localities as to how to work through a process that allows the input of public opinion and to realize the sensitivity of the day.”
After the removal of confederate general J.E.B. Stuart monument in Richmond, J. E. B. Stuart Birthplace Preservation Trust Inc. is seeking donations to potentially move, restore, and install the monument, with plans to relocate the statue and its pedestal at Laurel Hill Farm, Stuart’s birthplace in Ararat.
The trust filed an application with the Richmond City Council to obtain the statue after it was taken down from Monument Avenue, according to Ronnie Haynes, president of the trust.
According to Haynes, the trust has currently raised the funds needed to transport the statue and is now focused on funding to move the pedestal on which the statue has rested since its creation more than 100 years ago. If the application is not approved, donations will be refunded. Funds also will be needed to restore the statue and pedestal to their former appearances, add security in the forms of cameras and gates, and lighting to showcase the monument in the night.
The granite pedestal, which he estimated is 7-feet in height, also is historically important, Haynes said, and added that displaying the two together will ensure they are presented as a complete historical, artistic piece. The plan to relocate them is, “about the biggest undertaking the board has done since buying the site,” Haynes said of Laurel Hill, a private 75-acre park along the Virginia/North Carolina state line.
The statue reckoning is not all – Black Lives Matter protests also continue, calling for the fair treatment of all by police. Salem Resident Keri Garnett, executive director of the Roanoke Skatepark Initiative, and a few friends created one such protest – Rolling for Reform. Held July 12, the first-time event was created to give the skate community an opportunity to stand in unison with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Our voices are being heard throughout this movement and events like this continue that momentum,” said Garnett. “Now that the door is open to having these discussions about systemic racism and police brutality, we need to continue to move forward, find solutions, make this a collaborative effort and don’t let it fizzle out.”
One attendee was Salem-native Roger Anderson, who noted that his opinion of the police at age 49 is the same as it was during his teenage years.
“I never understood the logic of generalizing an entire community off of a small percentage of rogue individuals. Most cops are committed to making a difference in the community,” said Anderson. “Most Black Lives Matter supporters are simply advocating for non-violent civil disobedience in protest against preventable incidents that happen too often to African-Americans. True progress will never happen until that is realized on both sides.”