Gov. Ralph Northam has called for the removal of the Jefferson Davis Memorial arch at Fort Monroe, saying its continued presence has an “adverse effect” on the historic property and urged the authority’s board of trustees to initiate steps to take it down.
In a letter presented Thursday to the Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees, Chief of Staff Clark Mercer relayed the governor’s stance, asking an eight-member panel and those ex-officio members present to take necessary steps to remove the arch and all references to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Park, located at Bernard and Ruckman road intersection near a 500-yard terreplein.
The archway entrance to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Park was built on the ramparts in 1956 by the Army on behalf of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The group paid $10,000 to build the 50-foot wrought iron structure.
“This process will require a detailed review … along with significant public engagement. I believe it is appropriate,” Mercer said, reading Northam’s letter. “I feel strongly that a memorial glorifying the President of the Confederacy has no place here, especially given our efforts this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans landing at Old Point Comfort.
Northam’s position, which some present called bold, argued while the arch and park are listed as contributing elements to the Fort Monroe National Historic Landmark designation, they “were constructed after the landmark’s period of historic significance ended,” his letter stated.
Members of authority’s board, after some debate, voted unanimously to take steps to have the arch removed, a protracted process given the federal constraints facing the historic landmark district.
The vote took place during the second day of a two-day retreat with a tour of select spots on the 565-acre former military post that included a visit to the archway.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the original project to erect a structure in honor of Jefferson Davis, authority officials said. Davis, the former U.S. Secretary of War and president of the confederacy, was incarcerated for treason within a casemate cell, a mere walking distance from the archway and park.
Christine Gergely, 72, of Newport News, a representative with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was in attendance Thursday. Gergely was there with her husband and spoke in defense of the structure, saying it was accepted by the Army in good faith.
“How can you have ‘one nation under God’ and destroy a piece of history?” Gergely said, referencing a comment another board member made earlier. “Removing the arch is just denying the original history. I think it’s wrong. We have as much right to our things we have given in good faith, as anyone else.”
Mercer later summarized Northam’s letter, saying the governor feels there is a distinction between teaching the history about Davis at the Casemate Museum “and a memorial on a hill that glorifies and honors an individual we don’t feel is a contributing factor … but we feel takes away from the actual contributing elements and their historic significant.” Mercer said. “When we look at what contributing elements are ... we feel the mid-1950s falls outside the scope of that. It’s not a coincidence this was put up the same year … of Virginia’s massive resistance.… It’s incompatible to have that and tell the story we are charged to tell here.”
Board members also considered some options in the meantime — including adding interpretive signage, changing the name on the arch, or even remove, obscure the letters or store them — given the optics of the structure as the community prepares for the commemoration events in late August.
“This is where freedom lives, and everything should be consistent with it,” said board chairman James Moran. “I think the interpretive signage is going to be quite provocative in and of itself.”
Ex-officio non-voting member Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball added, “That’s a very offensive structure, largely because of the timing. I would not want anyone coming here without some interpretation of that sign. I think it’s really important to get something up there. It just sitting there, like an endorsement.”
The letter primarily was addressed to David Stroud, the authority’s historic preservation officer. Stroud said his office will begin reviewing the request.
The historic landmark designation lists the Jefferson Davis Memorial Arch and park as a contributing landscape feature and is outlined in a programmatic agreement crafted the after the Base Realignment and Closure — BRAC — in 2005 and before the military post was decommissioned in 2011.
Northam has faced recent criticism about a blackface photo in his medical school yearbook, but the issue of removing the arch had been an objective when he was lieutenant governor and served on the authority’s board in 2014, Mercer said.
“It’s never a wrong time to do the right thing,” Mercer said.
Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @lvernonsparks