A monument that for many citizens has served as a stark reminder—and some say a celebration—of some of the darkest parts of American history will come down.
The Loudoun County Board of supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday night to affirm that the ‘Silent Sentinel’ statue of a Confederate soldier that stands on the courthouse lawn belongs to the Loudoun Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and to allow them to remove the statue from public property.
But not every supervisor agreed on why they cast their yes vote.
The vote followed a letter from the Loudoun Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, asserting that they own the statue since they raised the bulk of the money to put it up, and asking to reclaim the statue. They acknowledged supervisors were likely to take the statue down with new authority granted by the General Assembly this year; the private property claim sidesteps a lengthy public process and amounts to allowing a private organization to come reclaim their private property.
The statue will likely be gone by Sept. 7. County Attorney Leo Rogers said Steven Price, the attorney who wrote to supervisors on behalf of the Loudoun Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has communicated that the statue will be down on or before Labor Day.
After that, suggested Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), the county may take the statue down and put it into storage if the Daughters of the Confederacy have not yet come to collect it.
The statue, the “Silent Sentinel,” was commissioned by the Clinton Hatcher Camp Confederate Veterans and Sons, now the Clinton Hatcher Camp of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, and the Loudoun Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, now the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which began raising funds for the project as early as 1901. In 1906, the Board of Supervisors agreed to allocate $500 for the project as long as the Sons and Daughters raise the remaining $2,500, and the statue was formally unveiled in 1908, in the height of the Jim Crow era as Confederate monuments were going up across the south. At that time in its history, the Daughters of the Confederacy was promoting the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative of the Civil War that romanticized slavery, and had ties to the Ku Klux Klan, including erecting a monument to the KKK in North Carolina 18 years later.
Randall, who has argued against the statue for years, counted the unanimous votes to see the statue removed tearfully.
A ‘Sea Change’
“I come up here in support of George Floyd, and I can tell you right now, if he wouldn’t have died, none of us would be here talking about this,” said Leesburg resident Steven Ross, a Black man. “And I’ve been thinking about this. This is some type of vending machine type of situation, where we have to feed quarters into America to be heard, and instead of quarters, we’re feeding dead, lifeless Black bodies into this vending machine so that we can have an opportunity to come out here and speak. And I hope that George Floyd is the last person, the last coin we have to feed into this machine.”
Ross was part of the overwhelming majority of people who spoke to the board during public comment sessions Tuesday who supported removing the statue.
He said when he moved to Leesburg 20 years ago, “I see this spectacle that’s out in front of the courthouse, and I think about this: What if they would have won? Where would you be, Chair Randall? Where would you be? Would you still be a slave? Because that’s what they fought for.”
“Why would we keep a statue that symbolizes hate and division right in front of the Loudoun County courthouse?” said Erin Coleman of Ashburn. “A building where justice is intended to be served evenly and fairly, which is right next to a town square that is meant to be a gathering place for all of its people? These are hypocrisies that can no longer be ignored.”
“This is not a political issue, it is a human rights issue,” said Mathilde Verdier, also of Ashburn. “Those who built Confederate monuments during the Jim Crow era did so intentionally to perpetuate white supremacy, and let’s be clear, they were on the wrong side of history.”
“Six months, ago if you told me that we would have 30 speakers about the Confederate statue, and of those 30, 27 of them argued stridently to have the statue removed, and three of them supported keeping the statue, you would have been able to knock me over with a feather,” said Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn). “…There has been a sea change in America over the last month and a half, and I, for one, am very humble and proud to be part of it.”
Randall called the argument that taking down the statue erases history “ridiculous.”
“History resides in libraries and classrooms and museums and books and print and film. I’m the daughter and the wife of military, I lived quite a few places before settling down, and most of my growing up years were in Denver, CO. And I can tell you, I learned every bit of Civil War history, and I didn’t have to go look at the statue to depend on learning that history.”
But, she argued, even if it could erase history—she would do that.
“If taking the statue down could erase history it means that you erase mothers, fathers, sons and daughters being stolen from their homeland and being put in bondage,” Randall said. “You erase women being raped and having their children stripped from them. You erase people working like animals from sun up to sundown. You erase beatings and terrors and lynchings. If taking that statue down could erase the long standing residue of the original sin of slavery, and all that it has wrought, and all that it still [wreaks on] African Americans—if taking that statue down could erase all that, I would be personally traveling through the south tearing down statues with my bare hands.”
But instead, she argued, taking the statue down “corrects history.”
“It’s the putting up of the statue that actually altered history,” Randall said. “What taking down the statue does is this: it brings some level of comfort, that the ancestors of the people who were enslaved don’t have to look at the monuments to the enslavers, or those who fought to keep the institution of slavery intact.”
Supervisor Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run) spoke of her own’s family’s history in civil rights work, including her father’s time as president of the Prince William County NAACP, and her older siblings’ time as the first black students in Prince William County schools.
“I grew up hearing stories from my older sister about how she was screamed at by parents and students at her school because she didn’t belong with the white children,” Glass said. “To me, the Confederate monument has just replaced those screams, telling people of color in Loudoun we do not belong.”
Vice Chair Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) argued the statue is a symbol of the Jim Crow era of legally-enforced racial segregation, and said “it’s not coincidence that this statue was placed at the heart of the county seat, and a place where many citizens would have to go for a variety of reasons.” He also pointed out that although Loudoun had citizens fighting on both sides of the war, the statue only honors Confederate soldiers.
“Even if you personally may not find it offensive, keep in mind the courthouse serves citizens of all backgrounds,” Saines said. “All who enter the courthouse ground should feel welcome. We should not have a statue that there that offends, insults, the citizens of Loudoun.”
“I think it is very difficult for someone with my color skin to fully understand and empathize with someone whose skin is darker, who is so deeply hurt by a celebration of a government and a war and an effort to keep dark-skinned people enslaved,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg). She added “we have to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of other people and see that these symbols of a system that kept their ancestors enslaved are just devastating to them today.”
And Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), a Massachussetts native, said it was “a shock” to move to Virginia and see Confederate leaders memorialized.
“With time we tend to see some things a little differently, and this is one of those things. And as I listen to my colleagues talk about this and what it means to them and how they view it, it’s persuasive to me that we shouldn’t have something in that location that causes a group of our citizens to feel that way. It’s just not a polite, not a nice thing to do.”
He also said “the slope is only as slippery as we choose to make it.”
“I for one am not going to support eradicating celebrations of every individual in American history who did something wrong, because all of them did, and it was a different time,” Letourneau said. “The Founding Fathers were very flawed in many ways, but they still created this ideal of a nation, and here we are. I think when we’re talking about individuals who are being celebrated specifically because of something like the Civil War, that’s a different story.”
Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) has remained the monument’s most ardent apologist on the board. While he agreed that “legally, if indeed this is the statue of the … United Daughters of the Confederacy, then I think we have no other choice but then to adopt this motion,” he argued against bringing it down. He denied that the statue’s origin is rooted in white supremacy.
“Clearly, the ‘Silent Sentinel’ statue is a memorial to a group of Loudoun residents, who lived right here in our County and died in our American Civil War,” Kershner said. “They were on the wrong side of a very critical issue in history, but they were still Americans.The tides of time are always erasing our memories of the past. But a statue is an anchor against those tides. It testifies that these people were real.”
He also said “I have yet to see a single one of my colleagues say anything about Governor Northam wearing blackface while standing next to a hooded Klan member.”
Randall pointed out every Democrat currently serving on the Board called for Northam’s resignation.
Kershner also likened “the bloody and noble fight to free the African-American” to efforts to restrict access to abortion today. “In both cases, one person is allowed to dictate the fate of another, simply because they are black, or because they are unborn,” Kershner said.
More to Come?
The statue may not be the last symbol with ties to white supremacy to come down in Loudoun. Kershner also raised former Democratic senator and governor Harry Flood Byrd in his remarks, who is best known for leading “massive resistance,” a set of laws designed to prevent school integration that resulted in many Virginia schools being closed and a long aftermath of practical racial segregation in school.
“I’d like to thank Supervisor Kershner for reminding us about Sen. Byrd, because I have a feeling that will certainly be on our list, because several things are named after that person,” retorted Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian).
Rt. 7 from the Shenandoah River to Fairfax County is named Harry Flood Byrd Highway, so named in 1968 two years after his death.