Confederate statue debate comes to IW, Surry

Published 12:54 pm Wednesday, August 23, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The discussion over removing statues honoring the Civil War and Confederate soldiers has moved to Isle of Wight and Surry counties in the wake of violence resulting from a recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Two local black leaders have stepped forward and asked the Surry and Isle of Wight County boards of supervisors to remove statues honoring Confederate soldiers.

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The statues are located in front of the historic courthouses of both localities.

Isle of Wight NAACP Chapter President Valerie Butler Thursday asked the Board of Supervisors that the statue honoring fallen Confederate soldiers, which is on county-owned property, be removed. Butler was also concerned that the violence and turmoil that erupted in Charlottesville could come to Isle of Wight County.

At the same time, retired Surry County Judge Gammiel Poindexter sent a letter to the Surry Board of Supervisors asking to remove the county’s Confederate soldier statue. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Butler said she’s received calls from residents concerned about the events in Charlottesville.

The rally was held in response to the city of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and rename Lee Park to Emancipation Park.

“Isle of Wight needs to take a stand now and move up front, as this could easily happen here,” Butler said.

“Unless we take a proactive stand, there is no doubt that these acts will wander into more cities and more lives within the near future,” she said.

Citing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s call to Virginia localities to remove Civil War-related monuments, Butler asked the Board to remove its monument.

Her concerns were echoed by Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson and Newport District Supervisor William McCarty.

Jefferson and McCarty expressed concern about outside groups using the statue as a focal point for their hatred and, as a result, bringing that element to Isle of Wight County.

“I can see these groups migrating down the road, migrating from state to state and we don’t want that in Isle of Wight County, because we say Isle of Wight County is a great place to live,” Jefferson said.

“We need to be proactive, come together as a team and do everything in our power to keep Isle of Wight the place that we love so dear,” he said.

McCarty condemned hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Neo-Nazis, but said that many statues remind people of where they don’t want to return — and where they hope to go — such as those celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think if we start getting into a war over figurines and concrete structures … I think let’s understand that what we can draw from all of them is what we can be and what we should never be, and at the end of the day I’m OK with that,” McCarty said.

Other residents spoke out too.

“The monuments are history. We can’t change history, we can only go forward. So what do we do, throw all the history books away and brainwash all us older people that know the history?” said Windsor District resident Deborah Hall.

Debbie Bales Cratch said taking down Confederate monuments won’t stop people from hating.

“The truth of the matter, people are like apples, we’re all different. There’s good and bad in every one of us. The thing of it is, we can either decide to throw out the whole bushel, or we can come together and unite as a human race,” she said.

Surry County

In her letter to the Surry County Board of Supervisors, Poindexter said she has passed by that statue many times, but the recent events in Charlottesville led her to ask the Board to have it removed.

Poindexter, who is African-American, spent years fighting for civil rights in Surry County with her husband, Gerald, and many others.

“I believe I thought, is not Surry County different?” wrote Poindexter.

“So many here have fought long, hard and dangerous battles to build a county and a school system which is representative of all its citizens … however, after watching the developments in Charlottesville, Virginia this week and seeing the action of men and women who wish to take us back, advocate hate and bigotry; and the reaction of President Trump who is lost to the importance of symbols in our lives, I believe it is time to say this statue has no place on the courthouse yard. It is not what we stand for and want to honor,” wrote Poindexter.

“I have passed that statue many time in the last 40 plus years and I have overlooked the honor given to men who fought to keep me, my ancestors and my descendants in slavery,” she wrote.

Surry Board of Supervisors Vice-Chairman Michael Drewry said he had not yet received Poindexter’s letter when called for a comment Thursday.

Drewry said that beyond Poindexter’s letter, he has not yet been approached about the statue.

Drewry said there are several ways to approach monuments — either to remove them or include all aspects of the history surrounding them. Drewry wants to hear from his constituents and is open to the conversation about whether or not to remove the county’s confederate soldier statue.

Board Chairwoman Judy Lyttle had also not seen the letter as of Friday, and wanted to wait and read it before responding.

Isle of Wight County’s statue

Isle of Wight County’s Confederate soldier statue, erected in 1905 in front of the older courthouse, was heralded with great fanfare in a May 31 Daily Press story, which cited an “enormous” crowd of nearly 6,000, as the memorial was “a tribute to the heroism of the men who fought for the lost cause, yesterday.” Included in the crowd were “the Confederate veterans, proudly erect in their time-worn coats of gray.” Militia detachments from Hampton and Newport News came for the event, as well as a senator who wore his Confederate uniform.

Speeches “brought forth a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm for the lost Confederacy.” The statue was unveiled as “Dixie” was played. The story noted that the monument was paid for with private donations.

The statue was erected by the Confederate Memorial Association, which was approved for incorporation by the Virginia General Assembly in 1901.

The monument includes several inscriptions, including the following, “Isle of Wight’s loving tribute to her heroes of 1861 -1865. They bravely fought, they bravely fell, they wore the gray, they wore it well.”

There was some confusion over who actually owned the land on which the monument was located, but it became county property in 1908 as long as it was used for the monument, according to Isle of Wight County Attorney Mark Popovich.

Isle of Wight also has a veterans’ memorial in Smithfield that commemorates all Isle of Wight residents killed in wars dating from the Revolutionary War to Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The memorial includes a brick with the name of each known Isle of Wight resident who died in one of the featured wars, including the Civil War, which had by far the most names at more than 200. By comparison, there are 22 names of those who died in World War II and eight for Vietnam.

Surry County’s statue

Surry’s confederate soldier was erected by the Confederate Memorial Association of Surry in 1909 and was dedicated to the Confederate soldiers of the county.

The statue’s unveiling drew 3,000 to the town of Surry and included a United States senator and members of Confederate Veterans Robert E. Lee Camp and the A.P. Hill Camp of Petersburg, according to “The Comp’ny,” a book written by H. Temple Crittenden about the Surry Lumber Company in Dendron.

It is inscribed with “That we through life may not forget to love the thin gray line.”

Nearby, Surry County also has a memorial commemorating those residents who fought in World War I and World War II, as well as a monument to the Indian Chanco, who warned early settlers of a pending Indian raid.

Silent Sentinel

Interestingly, Surry and Isle of Wight’s soldier figures on their monuments look very similar — both are at parade rest and are holding a rifle or sword.

That’s no coincidence, according to Chris Carola with the Associated Press.

Most of the statues were mass produced by a few Northern companies that made a business of selling these monuments to communities, north and south, that wanted to honor their Civil War dead and survivors, according to Carola’s story, which was published in 2015 in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Versions of the silent sentinel can be found from Texas to Maine, according to the story.

Laws concerning war memorials

The Code of Virginia includes a statute governing monuments and memorials for numerous wars, ranging from the Algonquin war of 1622 to the current War on Terrorism, to include Confederate and Union monuments or memorials to the War Between the States.

The law states it is illegal for those monuments to be removed or defaced, as well as interfering with citizens taking “proper measures” to protect those monuments.

The rally held by the white supremacist groups was in response to the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, along with a monument to Confederate Lt. Stonewall Jackson, is the subject of a civil suit filed by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and others and which has not been resolved.

Civil War Iconography

Virginia has the most tributes to the Confederacy in the nation, at 223 monuments, on publicly supported spaces, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which recently published “Whose Heritage: Public Symbols of the Confederacy.”

However, while the report notes Surry County’s Confederate soldier monument, it does not list Isle of Wight County’s statue. The report includes streets, schools, memorials, monuments, military installations and community centers.

According to the SPLC, Surry and Isle of Wight counties’ statues arrived during the first large spike in such iconography in the country, the second being in the 1950-1960s.  The first spike, which ran from about 1900 through 1920, paralleled the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the south, and the second came during the Civil Rights era, according to the report.

Jim Crow laws began being passed in the late 1800s as a way for whites to control blacks, according to Virginia Studies, which is part of the Virginia Standards of Learning for public schools. 

Prior to Jim Crow, and during Reconstruction, blacks and whites often rode together in the same railway cars, ate in the same restaurants and used the same public facilities. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional, allowing for legal discrimination by private organizations, business and individuals.

Challenges to Jim Crow laws began in 1915 and those laws were eventually abolished during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, according to Virginia Studies.

Timothy S. Sedore, who wrote “An Illustrated Guide to Virginia’s Confederate Monuments” in 2011, described the evolution of war memorialization as predictable periods such as the reconciliation or celebration era, and in the case of the Civil War, from 1890 to 1920, where “mourning becomes celebration in the fullest sense of the word.”

“By 1920, nearly every courthouse in Virginia had a Confederate monument,” he wrote.  {/mprestriction}