Peninsula residents dispute fate of Confederate symbols

As the rest of the country debates the fate of hundreds of Civil War-era monuments, the Virginia Peninsula is facing a debate over the handful of monuments here.

Statues dedicated to Confederate soldiers stand in Isle of Wight, Gloucester and Mathews counties. There’s a monument in Williamsburg, and one next to the old courthouse building in Newport News, which cost the Warwick County Board of Supervisors $2,036.10 when it was erected in 1909.

This week, Valerie Butler, president of the Isle of Wight chapter of the NAACP, stood in front of the county’s Board of Supervisors to ask members to remove the statue that stands on Monument Circle.

“I’m not saying it should be removed and disposed of, but I don’t think a governing body property is an area where it needs to be located,” she said Friday. “They may want to consider relocating to a park or cemetery that maybe has Confederate burial grounds there or Confederate markers, but as the public, where taxpayers pay, it’s not the location for it.”

Her reaction to the monument was prompted by a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, where the City Council decided to take down the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. The statue is still standing.

“I think Confederate monuments, as far as African-Americans are concerned, are a symbol of oppression, bigotry and hatred, and I concur with what’s going on around the country,” Butler said.

The veterans memorial next to the former Warwick County courthouse hasn’t prompted complaints to the Newport News Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the monument, Director Michael Poplawski said. But if anything were to change, it wouldn’t be up to them — Virginia state law says localities are free to erect monuments, but they’re not allowed to “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.”

Ken Parsons, a member of the James City Cavalry, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he hopes local police will enforce that law.

“There’s a lot of hysteria going on around the country,” he said.

He attributes that to people “not understanding history, not reading history and getting misinterpretations.”

He’s been a member of the Cavalry for about 15 years, and he said the issue has gotten more attention in the last five.

Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck said he didn’t know of any monuments on public property in the city, but one monument at St. Johns Episcopal Church is an “appropriate” way to honor soldiers.

“We’ve got to understand what it’s like for individuals whose heritage comes from slavery or having been enslaved, and we have to understand the perspective of families who didn’t maybe own slaves, but fought for the Confederacy because they were conscripted, or believed in it,” he said.

He said he expects more will be revealed after a unity rally Sunday at Davis Middle School the Hampton branch of the NAACP is holding. They’re asking that Hampton’s Jefferson Davis Middle School and Lee Elementary Schools be renamed.

He wouldn’t comment on the renaming of those schools, and deferred to the School Board.

Friday afternoon, Andrew Shannon, state vice president for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, held a press conference in front of Davis Middle School, asking that its name be changed, more than a year after first asking the School Board to rename the Davis and Lee schools.

“Yes, I have a wonderful place for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee and John Bankhead Magruder,” he told media. “That is the museum. We have a Virginia War Museum. We have a Hampton History Museum and we have some wonderful cemeteries. These are places we could give those individuals their reverence to their families.”

Shannon also wants Magruder Boulevard renamed. He said he’s sent letters to the School Board and City Council requesting the name changes.

"The naming of the two Hampton Schools of Jefferson Davis Middle School and Robert E. Lee Elementary School represents hatred, bigotry and divisiveness,” his letter to the Hampton School Board says. “As President Ronald Reagan said to the Soviet Union in Eastern Germany to tear the wall of division down. It is our hope and desire that the Hampton Public City Schools tear the walls of division down in our Hampton Public Schools."

Parsons said it doesn’t make sense to move or tear down the monuments.

“You’ll destroy the history of the people, and then you don’t know where they came from,” he said.

The monuments that honor soldiers, like the one that stands in Newport News, are fairly common around the region, local historian John Quartstein said.

“They’re honoring those who perished during the war, so that’s what you find on the Peninsula, mostly monuments that are not great symbolic monuments of Robert E. Lee,” he said.

The monuments, he said, should be preserved, but with context.

“I wasn’t there, I could only tell you what I read in newspapers from the time and descriptions of the event, but the Civil War was ever so tragic, and all soldiers who served carried the future of our nation on their backs, whether North or South, and they did so in an admirable way,” he said. “To take one whole group of Americans and discount them is not something we need to do.”

Butler said she’s not sure what’s going to happen to the monument in Isle of Wight county. She’d like to see it go.

“I just don’t want to see what happened in Charlottesville happen to our community,” she said.

Mishkin can be reached by phone at 757-641-6669. Find her on Twitter at @KateMishkin.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
73°