Confederate monuments can be moved or removed by the governments that own them, according to state law passed in 2020, but guidelines for adding more history around war memorials will likely wait months longer before receiving state approval.
Regulations for contextualizing public war memorials have been drafted and were approved by Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources during a quarterly board meeting on Sept. 23. That guidance is on the “fast track” for statewide adoption, said Stephanie Williams, deputy director for Virginia DHR.
“The fast track, it is a faster track than the regular, standard rulemaking process,” Williams said to the DHR board. “We’ve been through the fast track process once before since my time here, and it actually only took about seven months.”
Even the state government’s fast track requires review from about a half-dozen other agencies, plus approval from General Assembly committees. The regulations also need a signature from the governor, as well as a 30-day public comment period, Williams said.
“If there are 10 or more objections from any members of the public, then we kind of have to start over and go through the longer process,” Williams said. “We’ll just cross our fingers that when we submit these… that there are no objections.”
If seven months seems like a long time to approve a four-page rules document, Williams said the standard rulemaking process usually takes two or three years.
Context for contextualizing
Virginia amended a law in 2020, allowing localities to move, remove or contextualize public war memorials. The law was passed in response to nationwide outcry against monuments that commemorate the Confederate side of the American Civil War.
At least 378 Confederate monuments exist on public and private lands in Virginia, according to a DHR count from 2018. Confederate memorials represent 88% of the 429 war monuments recorded in a state database of historically significant resources, according to DHR data from 2018.
In this situation, contextualization aims to explain the circumstances, influences and conditions that resulted in a war memorial’s creation, according to a definition in the draft regulations.
A contextualized war memorial will describe circumstances that existed when it was erected, and explain the documented motivation for its creation, draft regulations said. Context will also include information about who was involved in the war memorial’s creation and their motivations, plus information about the parties excluded from that process.
Context markers are not to be placed on or near memorials without DHR approval, draft regulations said.
Law does not require a war memorial to be contextualized. It will be up to local governments to decide if context is added to any war monument, or whether to remove a statue altogether, after going through a suitable public hearing process.
Earlier in September, the state removed its 60-foot-tall monument of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond, unveiled in 1890. A memorial to freed slaves has since debuted nearby.
A Confederate monument owned by Roanoke County was ordered for removal by a circuit court judge in July. In his unprecedented order, Judge Charles Dorsey said the monument, which since 1909 has stood along Salem’s Main Street, obstructs proper administration of justice in the courthouse.
But the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors responded in September to that order, and said the board, not a judge, has sole power to alter public war memorials.