Hearing on IW monument planned for September

Published 11:04 pm Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Isle of Wight County has scheduled a public hearing on the fate of its Confederate monument for Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. in Smithfield High School’s auditorium.

Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors hadn’t planned to discuss the matter on Thursday, but did so anyway after Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson requested it be added to that evening’s agenda. Several county residents also spoke on the issue during the portion of the meeting reserved for citizen comments.

“I’m here tonight to request the removal of the Confederate monument from county property,” said the Rev. Dr. Littleton Marks of Smithfield. “This monument is an insult, and an assault, to a large number of citizens of this county, specifically African Americans. Now, I can’t expect for those who are white to understand the hurt that this monument causes to a people who live in the systemic racism in this nation. But this is very important to us … We can’t move forward in this county until we own up to the true history of this nation and this county.”

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Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing localities to remove, relocate, cover or add signage contextualizing any Confederate monuments they own. Isle of Wight’s monument is located in front of the county’s circa-1801 courthouse, a building that now houses the county’s Board of Supervisors boardroom and its Planning and Zoning department offices. It depicts a Confederate soldier atop an octagonal granite base, which bears the following inscription:

“Isle of Wight’s loving tribute, to her heroes of 1861 to 1865. They bravely fought. They bravely fell. They wore the gray. They wore it well. Bright were the lives they gave for us. The land they struggled to save for us, will not forget its warriors yet, who sleep in so many graves for us. They bleed – We weep. We live – They sleep … Glorious is his fate, and envied is his lot, who for his country fights and for it dies. There is a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done, the honor of the integrity of principle.”

Erected in 1905, it is one of many the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned throughout the early to mid 20th century, not just in the American South, but throughout the United States. There is even one in Canada honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s visit to Montreal.

Canadians removed the Jefferson Davis memorial in 2017 following the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville — a two-day event earlier that year at the site of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which turned violent when white supremacists, neo-Nazis and armed militia groups, many from out of state, clashed with counter-protestors. Days after the violence, Isle of Wight NAACP Chapter President Valerie Butler had asked the Board to consider removing the county’s monument — a request she repeated on Thursday.

“I am looking to you to do the right thing,” Butler said. “Even while speaking out last time when I was here I received a couple of threatening telephone calls …  but it’s not going to deter me … Tonight, I’m back with the same request. The monument must go.”

Butler added that negative comments had also been posted on the Isle of Wight NAACP’s social media pages.

“For anyone to say the Civil War was not fought over slavery does not know their history,” she said. “Many of these monuments erected throughout the South are in visible public places. This was not by accident. These monuments represented power over a people, and were placed at the seat of power … The monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era decades after the Civil War ended, primarily to symbolize white supremacy and power over an oppressed people.”

As of the morning of July 20, 75 people had signed the Isle of Wight NAACP’s petition on change.org calling for the monument’s removal.

Volpe Boykin of Carrsville, who is himself descended from a Confederate veteran, had asked that the matter be put to a voter referendum rather than a public hearing, and disputed the monument’s association with the South’s Jim Crow era, stating that some monuments to Union soldiers were erected in the North around the same time.

“All the Confederates didn’t jump up to go fight for slavery in the Confederacy; if they did, the Confederacy wouldn’t have had to have had three drafts,” Boykin said. “Your predecessors in Isle of Wight County enforced that draft, sent these young men and made them go to die.”

“To capitulate with this monument, to me … is to put your stamp of approval on every monument that’s being removed and destroyed in this country,” Boykin added. “If you destroy the monument to every imperfect human that we’ve got monuments to, you know as well as I do there will be no monuments left except maybe to Jesus, and they’ve also tried to remove Him.”

“Today, most people look at it as a memorial to a time in the past, a time when the South defied the federal government; to the African American community, it was placed there to hold them down … it is not either,” said Ed Whitley, commander of the Isle of Wight Avengers, a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “It is a place that is a tribute to the men who lost their lives on distant soils from home and never returned. They served the Commonwealth because Virginia called its citizens to action against the invading army of the Union. Most of them did not even own a slave.”

When it came time for the Board to discuss the issue, County Attorney Bobby Jones Jr. informed the supervisors they had two options: petition the court for a referendum on this November’s ballot or schedule a public hearing. But per state law, a referendum is not an option once a public hearing has been scheduled. The board ultimately chose the public hearing option, though Carrsville District Supervisor Don Rosie had suggested the Board form a task force instead.

“The question that remains on my mind, are we going to get more from a referendum or a task force?” he asked.

Despite the requests heard that evening from residents asking that the monument be taken down, not all Board members seemed in favor of doing so.

“Every time I drive into Smithfield I see a tiny schoolhouse across from Main Street Baptist Church, and it reminds me that segregation was never separate and equal, but evil and intentionally discriminatory,” said Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice. “Are the departing parishioners of that church every Sunday affronted and reminded of the evils of segregation? Should we remove that memorial because it affronts or reminds us of something that is an ugly part of our history? I don’t think so.”