After long and heated debate over the Confederate war memorial at the steps of the old courthouse in Leesburg on Wednesday night, Loudoun supervisors did not pass a resolution asking the General Assembly to give localities the power to move war monuments.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) had proposed that the county ask the General Assembly for the authority to move war monuments, which it currently cannot do. She did not explicitly call to move the Confederate monument in her proposal.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) opposed that idea, saying it ultimately was an attempt to remove the Confederate statue, and offered his own proposal to have the county’s board-appointed Heritage Commission “review the full historic significance of the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds and its statues, and to determine what additional memorials, monuments, statues or interpretive context would be appropriate to fully reflect the history of the grounds, the County and its citizens.”
That sparked passionate arguments from Loudouners, who came to the meeting to tell the board what they thought about the war memorial.
Some came to argue that the monument must be left where it is. RJ Hall likened taking down the Confederate monument to the Taliban destroying monuments in Afghanistan.
“That, my dear board members, seems to be where we seem to be as a nation today,” Hall said. “Nowadays, it’s not enough to acknowledge and confess our sins of the past, it seems we must eliminate anything that reminds us of them. The human condition is such that if we follow this rationale to its natural conclusion, literally everything in humankind will have to be destroyed as part of the purge.”
“The courthouse statue, it really stands for people, for veterans, just like the other monuments over there for the world wars, for Korea, and I’m perfectly fine with building more statues of the Union soldiers and for the enslaved,” said teenaged Matthew Tobias.
“I’m tired of hearing about slavery,” said Lewis Leigh. “It happened 150 years ago. Get over it, folks.”
But the majority of speakers on the topic—including every black speaker—came to say the statue must go. Brittany Rose said she understood being tired of hearing about slavery—she is too—but that it shaped the country.
“I moved here in third grade, and I thought growing up in Loudoun it was normal to walk down the street and be called racial slurs as a child,” Rose said. She said walking past a monument at the courthouse that celebrates people who fought to preserve slavery is “a smack in the face every day” and that the courthouse steps are not the right place for that statue.
“I just ask that we’re thoughtful, and that we’re mindful and considerate of people who have different life experiences than we do,” Rose said. “It’s really nice to grow up in a world where you think everything is right and that everyone gets along, but the message that we’re sending to folks who don’t think that way is strengthened by this statue on our courthouse steps.”
She was joined by other people who said keeping the statue on the courthouse grounds sends them a message. Alicia Cohen said for some people, the statue markets praise and the history of their heroes, but “for other people, Confederate monuments say ‘stay in your place, you don’t have any power, you don’t matter to us.’”
And some found room for both Randall’s and Higgins’ ideas. Former Planning Commission chairman Al Van Huyck said he supports both.
“Does a local jurisdiction have the sole right to control those parts of a nation’s history that falls within their boundaries?” Van Huyck asked. “And are there better way to address the very real grievances of African-Americans than the removal of monuments?”
On the board, supervisors were evenly divided on Randall’s proposal. Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) said he agreed with suggestions that the statue should be in a museum or other historical exhibit, such as Ball’s Bluff Battlefield Regional Park.
“Having that statue there I think would make more sense, because they can actually talk about the statue as part of the tour there,” Saines said. “If you come to the courthouse grounds, you just see the statue. There’s nothing that talks about the statue, how it got there, what’s involved with it, how it’s there.”
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said having the monument there “isn’t the right message to send.” He pointed out that the statue’s commission coincided very closely with the Jim Crow era. He also said that his support for Randall’s proposal had put him at odds with Republican leadership—a party that he pointed out counted Abraham Lincoln as its first president, and that he said “led the battle for civil rights.”
“Some of the attacks from our party’s leadership against me for supporting this effort show otherwise, and that’s very upsetting to me,” Meyer said. “I have a daughter named Lincoln for a reason. We stand for federalism, we stand for abolition, we stand for the rights and liberties of all people.”
“I don’t see how I can vote to ask for permission to move it,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge). “I already know I don’t want to move it.”
“In the end, other than us taking a position that the General Assembly probably won’t listen to anyhow, because they didn’t listen to us on the proffer bill—I guarantee you there will be other legislation introduced in the General Assembly that will address this topic,” said board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn).
Ultimately, the board split on a 4-4-1 vote, with Meyer, Randall, Saines, and Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) supporting Randall’s proposal. Buffington, Buona, and supervisors Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) voted against.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) abstained.
“Because I don’t want to say no to the questions of local control, but I’m also not ready to say yes to adding this to our legislative agenda, I’m going to abstain,” he explained. With a tied vote, the measure failed.
Another vote, to ask the General Assembly to authorize a referendum on the statue, failed along party lines, with the board’s three Democrats voting for and its six Republicans voting against.
As to Higgins’ proposal to consult the Heritage Commission, the only strong division was whether to also include the Thomas Balch Library Black History Committee, as proposed by Randall. That idea, too, failed along a party line vote. Objecting to that, Randall and Saines opposed the Heritage Commission idea completely. Umstattd said “given my pessimism about the General Assembly and the risk that we will do nothing to put the current statue in context, I will be supporting Supervisor Higgins’ motion to attempt to do that as better than nothing.”