Uncertainty around a bill that could give Loudoun County leaders authority to move war monuments has given some supervisors pause about plans for a series of new installations on the courthouse grounds to tell the story of slavery and the civil rights struggle in Loudoun.
Under current state law, Loudoun County government cannot move or disturb war memorials on its locally owned public land—notably including the Confederate soldier statue on the Loudoun County courthouse lawn.
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 4-1-1, 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.
Instead, supervisors directed the county’s Heritage Commission to look into the history of the courthouse, and to consider the possibility of adding another monument to the ones already there. That commission last year recommended a series of new monuments and exhibits, dubbed ‘The Path to Freedom.’ It also recommended naming one of the buildings after pioneering civil rightsattorney Charles Hamilton Houston, who fought an important case of the Jim Crow era in the Leesburg courthouse.
That, it was hoped, would help tell a fuller story of the history of slavery and struggle for civil rights in Loudoun, and—some argued—provide a counterpoint to a statue that critics say glorifies the Confederacy and a history of racial oppression.
But three bills in the General Assembly right now would, if passed, give the county that authority, changing the basis of a years-long debate about what is appropriate to memorialize at the county courthouse in the heart of downtown Leesburg.And now, with a possible path toward a Board of Supervisors vote on whether to remove the Confederate statue, Randall expressed hesitation on moving ahead with the Heritage Commission’s plans.
“It is not unforeseeable that this body will take a vote on what we will do with the Confederate statue,” Randall said. “I have no idea how that vote will come out, but it’s possible that that vote will be taken. In fact, it’s almost certain that that vote will be taken.” She addedit would be “an affront to my ancestors” to move ahead now, and didn’t want to set county staff members to work on something, only to pull them back again later if things change.
Other supervisors wondered if the Confederate statue’s presence has made a difference to plans for other exhibits on the lawn—and whether they are designed to provide “context” to the statue, or stand on their own.
Heritage Commission Chairman Robert Pollard said the panel wrote its recommendation “in light of the fact that that statue isn’t going to go anyplace as far as we know, and it’s not really our business anyway—how should be think of alternative and additional memorialization.”
However, County Administrator Tim Hemstreet pointed out that the county will be taking no immediate action, regardless of how the board votes—the money for parts of the project is not yet in the current budget, nor in the proposed budget he is preparing for next fiscal year. Supervisors will likely have to add an estimated $75,000 for facilitated community input on the project to the county budget during their budget deliberations in March.
Supervisors, with that in mind, ultimately voted to move ahead with the project, with time to spare if things change around the Confederate statue. The county will pursue a National Historic Landmark designation for the historic courthouse and grounds, a years-long process, according to Director of Planning and Zoning Alaina Ray; form a committee to consider naming the historic courthouse; reserve space for a future “Path to Freedom” interpretive display on the grounds as the county builds its new courthouse complex; and bring the board a scope and cost estimate for gathering community input on designing and placing memorials commemorating the reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Leesburg courthouse, to Loudoun’s Union soldiers, and its enslaved people.
“I can’t explain the unrest inside my soul right now, I really can’t,” Randall said. “I cannot explain it. There are no words for it. What I don’t want is to come back here in six months and someone says, well, we’ve already started talking about memorials that put in context the whole history of the courthouse grounds, and that context includes that Confederate soldier. I will be incredibly unhappy if that happens. I don’t want to send people off doing something that I know that, depending on what the General Assembly does, may not stand.”
The motion passed, but the vote was unclear. Randall appeared to abstain from voting, resulting in an 8-0-1 vote.
Richmond Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-70)’s House Bill 1537 to give localities the authority to move war monuments on their public spaces, has been referred to the House Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns. The Senate versions of the bill—Chesapeake Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr. (D-5)’s Senate Bill 560 and Hampton Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-2)’s Senate Bill 183—are in the Senate Committee on Local Government. Local representatives on those committees include Sens. Barbara A. Favola (D-31) and John J. Bell (D-13) and Dels. Wendy W. Gooditis (D-10), Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-86), Suhas Subramanyam (D-87) and Dave A. LaRock (R-33).