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Lynchburg lawmakers reluctant to remove Confederate monuments

Lynchburg lawmakers reluctant to remove Confederate monuments

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Nearly five years after a massacre of black church-goers in South Carolina sparked a renewed reckoning over Confederate symbols in American life, legislation recently approved by the Virginia General Assembly soon may give local governments the chance to remove monuments to the Confederacy.

But interviews with Lynchburg lawmakers suggest the Confederate monuments that dot the Hill City will not come down any time soon. Of the seven elected representatives who sit on city council, none said the memorials should be torn down.

“I’m not one who wants to wipe out history,” Mayor Treney Tweedy said. “I’d rather we learn from it, so as not to repeat it.”

Tweedy, the first black woman to serve as mayor in Lynchburg, said the council should focus on “bigger issues,” including approving long-term infrastructure projects and investing in public safety.

“I want to keep the important issues at the forefront of our spending and consideration,” she said.

Tweedy’s sentiment was echoed by the vast majority of the council. Only Beau Wright, the youngest and newest member, said he has not yet made up his mind about the issue.

“I think this is really complicated, and it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers,” Wright said. “I’m still giving it a lot of thought.”

Ward IV council member Turner Perrow was adamant in his support for the monuments. He said the statues to Confederate soldiers hold deep meaning for Lynchburg residents, especially among those descended from Civil War veterans.

“The monuments in Lynchburg are to the people who served,” Perrow, who is not seeking reelection, said. “They didn’t do it for ideological reasons, they did it because that’s what they were asked to do. And I think we should respect anybody that steps up when they’re called to serve.”

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Confederate monuments once again are grabbing headlines in Virginia.

On Saturday, both chambers of the General Assembly voted to repeal a decades-old law barring localities in the state from removing war monuments from public property.

The new legislation gives local governments the right to vote to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover monuments to war veterans. It also gives localities the option of holding a non-binding referendum on the matter before taking any action.

The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has already pledged to sign it into law.

Supporters of the monuments believe the structures celebrate those who fought bravely for their homeland during the Civil War. But opponents said they are vestiges of a racist past that distort the reality of a war that left hundreds of thousands dead.

“The monuments themselves are not history, they are representations of history,” said Adam Dean, a professor of history at the University of Lynchburg.

Dean noted many of the monuments were built at the turn of the 20th century, following the failure of Reconstruction and as Confederate veterans began to die off. From the beginning, he said, the memorials reflected the re-emerging political power of southern whites.

“Most Confederate monuments are monuments of the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War,” Dean said. “The theory held that the Civil War was not about slavery, it was about state rights, which would certainly surprise people in 1861.”

Dean supports the legislation that would give localities the power to control their statues, however, he believes the conversation about removal should be more nuanced. Monuments explicitly endorsing the Lost Cause narrative should be taken down, he said, but others should continue to stand as long as they are properly contextualized by museums and historians.

Joyce Dixon, the president of the board of directors of the Legacy Museum of African American History, said Lynchburg must do a better job of addressing Confederate history.

“Some history is actually hurtful,” Dixon said. “I think we really need to sit down and evaluate how we’re telling these stories.”

With 110 monuments, Virginia has the second-highest number of memorials to the Confederacy in the United States after Georgia, according to a 2019 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Statues depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville and Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond have fueled years of debate about their place on public grounds.

In Lynchburg — a place of major strategic importance to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War — monuments can be found across the city.

Among the most recognizable is a statue at the top of Monument Terrace meant to memorialize Confederate soldiers killed in battle. Erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1900, the bronze figure has become an iconic landmark for many city residents.

Others see it as a testament to white supremacy. The statue stands just a few dozen feet from the entrance to Lynchburg Circuit Court — an important municipal building that draws thousands of people each year.

Local resident Marissa Gray said Confederate symbols should not be allowed to stand in public settings and should be removed.

“Owning people is not heritage and that’s what they were fighting for,” Gray said as she left the court complex on a recent afternoon. “They were fighting for hate.”

Elsewhere in the city, monuments to the Confederacy are given a prominent place in public spaces.

An obelisk honoring Gen. Jubal Early, a key figure in the Lost Cause movement who in 1864 helped beat back a Union invasion of Lynchburg, stands at the corner of Memorial and Fort avenues.

At Miller Park, a stone structure celebrating the 2nd Virginia Cavalry stands under a towering oak tree while a statue of John Warwick Daniel, a Confederate veteran who pushed to disenfranchise black voters as a U.S. Senator, sits at 9th Street and Park Ave.

At-large Councilman Randy Nelson, who penned a op-ed for The News & Advance on the topic of monuments in 2017, argued that without reminders of tragic moments in history, those living in the present may be prone to repeat them.

“To not understand where we were and how far we’ve come, diminishes the things that got us here,” Nelson said.

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The exact number of the city’s Confederate monuments is not fully known. In anticipation of the new laws governing monuments, the Lynchburg Museum has begun cataloging each memorial, according to its director, Ted Delaney.

Delaney said researchers have had a difficult time determining what qualifies as a Confederate monument.

For example, should the remains of a packet boat that once carried the body of Gen. Stonewall Jackson from Lynchburg to his final resting place in Lexington be considered a memorial? The hull of the boat is displayed at Riverside Park and a case can be made that the boat is more of an exhibit than monument, Delaney said.

Delaney is no stranger to the controversy surrounding Confederate symbols. In January, following nearly two years of debate, the museum displayed a Confederate battle flag on loan from the American Civil War Museum in Richmond.

Delaney said the experience convinced him the community should play a direct role in any decision made about the city’s monuments.

“The biggest lesson for me is how important it is to have a thoughtful, deliberate process where people are given facts, they’re informed and they’re given a chance to reflect on this issue,” he said.

The Lynchburg museum is not the only local institution that has wrestled with the monuments issue. Just two weeks after a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville descended into violence, Randolph College removed a statue of George Morgan Jones, a Confederate private who was instrumental in the founding of the college, and placed it in storage.

“The College has no connection to the Confederacy and, thus, the presence of a statue glorifying a Confederate soldier has no obvious place on our campus,” Bradley Bateman, the president of the college, said at the time.

All six candidates for city council in the upcoming May 5 election were united in their belief the monuments should continue to stand.

Vice Mayor MaryJane Dolan, Ward II Councilman Sterling Wilder and Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson, the three incumbents running for reelection, each equated removing the statues to erasing history.

Chris Faraldi, who is hoping to succeed Perrow in Ward IV, believes a compromise between supporters and opponents of the push to remove monuments can be reached. He called for building new statues to non-white Lynchburgers.

“Let’s put up statues from our diverse past,” Faraldi, a Republican, said. “I think we should be elevating people in our history regardless of their skin color.”

Abe Loper, a GOP-backed candidate running to unseat Dolan in Ward I, agreed with Faraldi about the need to erect new monuments to marginalized figures from history.

Though Loper personally believes the existing monuments should continue to stand, he said their fate ultimately should be left to Lynchburg voters in a citywide referendum.

“I believe that whenever possible, government should pass decisions to the community,” Loper said.

Larry Jones, an army veteran running as an independent for the Ward IV seat, said he is not bothered by the monuments. Like Loper, he believes the decision to remove the structures should be up to the voters.

Independent Larry Taylor said city council should spend its time on more pressing issues.

“They’re statues. That’s part of history,” Taylor, a candidate for Ward II, said. “I grew up around the Lee statue in Charlottesville. I walked past it every day and it didn’t stunt my growth.”

Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

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