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Nelson County's Confederate statue draws local pastor's cry for removal

Nelson County's Confederate statue draws local pastor's cry for removal

As Confederate monuments are toppled across the commonwealth, Nelson County’s own statue drew a lone call for removal during the Nelson County Board of Supervisors’ July 14 meeting, although supervisors have expressed they are reluctant to move it.

The Rev. James Rose, pastor of Montreal Baptist Church in Shipman, went before supervisors during a public comments portion of the meeting to ask the board to consider the removal and relocation of the Confederate statue which stand on the grounds of the Nelson County Courthouse.

“When I think about the soldier out there and I think about my ancestors and what they went through … it is a reminder to me, and to me, it’s offensive,” Rose, a member of the Amherst County NAACP and a former member of the Nelson County NAACP who has participated in civil rights movements in the past including the 1963 March on Washington, said to supervisors.

During his time in New York, Rose said he was also a member of the civil rights group Congress of Racial Equality.

Rose said he was speaking not only on behalf of himself, but several others who have shared with him their concerns of the Confederate statue.

“I want to think about the future. In this county I’ll do whatever I can to make it better, and as long as I’m here I’m going to be involved as much as I can,” Rose said. “If I see something wrong I’m going to speak up about [it].”

While the thought of bringing down the statue depicting an anonymous Confederate soldier had been something he’s considered in the past, Rose said now was a good time to bring it before the board, noting pushes made by Black Lives Matter groups to remove similar structures elsewhere in the state and country. With a history of equal rights movements behind him, Rose said he supports the movement going on today, but not the violence or destruction that sometimes follows.

“It’s a good movement and it’s good for the country and especially now that we’re getting young people involved … young people are marching for their future and their freedom,” Rose said. “I would do anything I can to support them anyway that I can.”

The statue — erected in April 1965 — features a bearded Confederate soldier in uniform; inscribed on his belt buckle are the letters “C.S.A”. He is seen gripping the barrel of his rifle with both hands as the butt of his weapon sits at his feet. The soldier stands atop a square base with an engraving that reads, “In memory of the heroic Confederate Soldiers of Nelson County who served in the War Between the States, 1861-1865. ‘Love makes memory eternal.’”

Unlike other monuments featuring Confederate generals, leaders or other prominent figures in the Confederate army, the statue in Nelson County depicts a nameless private and is meant to serve as a tribute to Confederate soldiers in the county, according to historical documents provided by the Nelson County Administrator’s office.

South District Supervisor Robert Barton — who taught African American history for more than a dozen years at Nelson County High School — said the distinction of being a common soldier is one of the reasons why he is reluctant to support the statue’s removal. In his eyes, it represents “tragedy, not glorification.”

“When I see that statue, I see tragedy; I see victims. To me it’s something difficult ... to get rid of because it represents a victim. The Civil War was the greatest tragedy in American history by far. Nothing compares to it,” Barton said.

“I’m very sympathetic of what Rev. Rose had to say. I understand the feelings of seeing [the] statue, but to me it’s important that that statue is not a statue of a general, it’s a statue of a soldier and soldiers have paid prices for a long time.”

Rose’s call for supervisors to consider the statue’s removal comes after nearly two months of protests by civil rights and Black Lives Matter groups following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May.

A state-owned monument depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee is the last-standing Confederate statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. The statue has been the subject of several lawsuits looking to block its removal after Gov. Ralph Northam in early June announced the state’s plan to do just that.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant on July 23 declined to issue an immediate ruling in a lawsuit which challenges the monument’s removal. Marchant will issue a written opinion as soon as this week. The Richmond judge granted an extension to the temporary injunction blocking the state’s removal of the statue for 30 days.

The lawsuit was filed by William C. Gregory, a descendant of the family that deeded the the statue and property to the state about 130 years ago. His complaint argues the state, as part of that deal, agreed to guard and protect the monument.

According to documents provided by Nelson County officials, in 1962 the Nelson County Board of Supervisors at the time appointed a five-member committee to select a suitable memorial for the Confederate soldiers of Nelson County. It was later decided by the committee a statue depicting a Confederate private be erected on the courthouse lawn.

Funding for the $5,600 statue came from the Virginia General Assembly, the Civil War Commission, the board of supervisors, contributions from the county’s districts and an individual gift.

Reached by phone, North District Supervisor and board chairman Tommy Harvey said he’s not in “favor of taking anything down.”

“He’s talking about bringing the people together, I can tell you one thing: it’s not going to bring the people together; it’s going to separate them,” Harvey said of Rose’s request.

East District Supervisor Jesse Rutherford echoed Harvey’s thoughts.

“In regards to the statue, if I knew racism and prejudice ended the very moment that statue came down I would knock it down myself and I would march to Richmond and tear down the ones there … but the problem is it won’t. It will not mark an end to your pain and it will certainly not make those who do not understand your pain the opportunity to have a softened heart,” Rutherford said.

Both Harvey and Rutherford said they’ve received no feedback from their constituents regarding the Confederate statue in recent months. Barton said he’s had a few people reach out to him.

Harvey added he doesn’t approve of Confederate statues being taken down elsewhere in the state.

“Was it wrong? Yes, no doubt, but we can’t go back and change that and trying to erase it isn’t going to change anything neither,” Harvey said of slavery.

Rose said he believes people need to learn to come together in the name of healing and removing the Confederate statue in Nelson County could contribute to that goal.

“Racism is something we need to talk about,” Rose said. “We need to talk about it.”

Nick Cropper covers Nelson County. Reach him at (434) 385-5522.

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