Loudoun supervisors have asked the General Assembly for the authority to disturb war veteran memorials on county-owned land, such as the Confederate soldier statue at the Leesburg courthouse,
In 2017, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pushed unsuccessfully to ask the state for local authority to move war monuments. Supervisors voted that down 4-4-0-1, with current supervisors Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) in support and Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) opposed. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) at that time abstained.
It was an early episode in the renewed, ongoing debate around Loudoun’s Confederate monument, begun after a violent clash in Charlottesville around a proposal to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The ensuing debate around Confederate memorials across the nation swept up the one in Leesburg, which was subsequently the site of protest and vandalism.
Under state law, local governments cannot move or disturb war memorials.
Rather than ask for that authority, with Loudoun leaders divided on how to reckon with the history of slavery and racial discrimination here, and with Loudouners passionately arguing on both sides, the Board of Supervisors commissioned a report from the county Heritage Commission. That would lead to recommendations for new monuments describing the history of civil rights in Loudoun, and the suggestion to name one of the courthouse buildings after pioneering Civil Rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, who argued a significant case of the Jim Crow era in the Leesburg courthouse.
And on Jan. 7, a newly Democratic-majority Loudoun Board of Supervisors for the first time voted to support bills giving localities the authority to move war monuments on the local government’s land.
“It’s our property, we and our constituents live with them daily, and we as local leaders should have the ability to make the decisions,” said Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling).
Supervisors Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) and Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) opposed the action. Kershner said he worried if the law changes, “we would lose many of the historical monuments that we currently have in Loudoun County.”
“When we forget what happened in history, we’re bound to repeat it, and so my biggest concern with removing anything that we currently have is that we will forget … some of these struggles, some of the issues that went on with this country,” Kershner said.
But the majority of supervisors disagreed.
“I believe that we can remember history without honoring the racist, the tyrannists, the oppressors from our past,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “We don’t need to honor and glorify them in monuments that are highly offensive in this day and age in order to remember, learn from and not repeat history.”
Supervisor Sylvia Russell Glass (D-Broad Run) recalled her own family living through the process of desegregating schools.
“As an African-American woman, and being brought up here in this area, and understanding how monuments portray something that lets people know who’s in charge, and who’s not in charge … I think those monuments, what we’re talking about, displays to a certain group of people who were in charge, you should still be in charge,” Glass said.
And Randall said the argument that taking down Confederate statues erases history “is maybe the weakest argument that I can imagine.”
“Show me the statue that glorifies holding Japanese Americans in internment camps,” Randall said. “They do not exist. We remember history where history should be remembered—museums, classrooms. But a statue is a glorification of something, and the idea that you take it down thus you forget it—I do not think anyone is going to forget slavery or the Confederacy because statues come down.”
She also dismissed the arguments of adding context to history with the statue.
“I would ask you, if there was a statue of Anne Frank, would you add a statue of Nazi soldier next to her? Because that’s context,” Randall said. “Where does that stop? How does that look? At some point there has to be a right and a wrong.”
Saines also argued against the statue.
“If the Confederacy was trying to do what they did back then, they would be called traitors,” Saines said. “No other country that I can think of has monuments to their traitors that are trying to overthrow their government, but we do here in the United States.”
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) saw the debate as a question of local authority—always a source of debate between localities and the state, in Virginia where localities only have those powers specifically given them by the General Assembly. He said Loudoun has had a “healthy dialogue” around the statue, and Loudoun should be able to decide what happens on its own land.
“I just cannot rationalize why Loudoun County should not get to decide what is on the Loudoun County courthouse grounds,” Letourneau said. “It’s not the state’s property, it’s the county’s property, and I don’t like the fact that the state has come in and taken that authority away from the county.”
Supervisors voted to direct their lobbyists to support a bill giving localities that authority 7-2, with Kershner and Buffington opposed.
One such bill, Hampton Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-2)’s Senate Bill 183, has been introduced and sent to the Committee on Local Government, of which local senators Barbara A. Favola (D-31) and John J. Bell (D-87) are members. The bill would allow localities to remove, relocate, or alter monuments or memorials for war veterans in the locality’s public spaces.