Virginia Democrats at odds over terms of Confederate statue removals

By: - February 14, 2020 12:04 am
Red paint covers the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond's Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Aug. 4, 2018)

Someone splashed red paint on the base of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Aug. 4, 2018)

A handful of Democrats in the Virginia Senate are pushing for some ground rules as the party moves to grant local governments around the state the authority to remove Confederate statues on public property.

Both the House and the Senate voted this week to restore local control over war memorials, but the Senate’s version of the legislation proposes a variety of requirements localities must first meet before removing any statues, including a mandatory historical study and public hearings over the course of more than 100 days, a super-majority vote by the local governing board and an optional referendum.

House lawmakers called the new rules unnecessary.

“Without state law, communities are already taking this decision very seriously,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, where the city voted back in 2017 to remove a downtown statue of Confederate Gen. Robert Lee after a city commission spent six months studying the issue.

She said it was important that the city not be forced to repeat the process. “The whole point of the bill is that we can trust communities to take ownership over their history.”

Lawmakers representing Norfolk and Richmond, two other localities that have discussed removing statues, concurred.

“I’m not fan of what they put in that bill,” said Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk.

The Senate language was included at the request of three lawmakers: Sens. Scott Surovell (Fairfax), Chap Petersen (Fairfax City) and Lynwood Lewis (Accomack).

“Before we make decisions about them, everybody’s entitled to have complete information,” said Surovell, who said he believed monuments should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. “Otherwise, I think a lot of people just jump to conclusions, make assumptions that everybody just put these statues up because they were racist or something.”

The study would be undertaken by the Department of Historic Resources at the cost of the locality.

The proposal would give the agency 90 days to complete its work, which must include “the background of the person or people depicted on the monument or memorial, the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the monument or memorial, and whether the monument or memorial qualifies for placement on the Virginia Landmarks Register or the National Register of Historic Places.”

The locality would then publish the report and then after 30 days hold a public hearing. Then 10 days after that, they would be allowed to vote or call for an advisory referendum.

The final vote would require support from two-thirds of the local governing body. In the case of Charlottesville, that works out to four of five members — one vote more than the simple majority that initially voted to remove the statue in 2017.

“I think anytime you’re talking about altering monuments put up to people who were killed in a war, I think we have to think carefully about deciding not to publicly recognize that anymore,” Surovell said.

Surovell said he would not support the legislation if the requirements — none of which are included in the House version — are removed.

Both versions of the bill struck language allowing the statue to be destroyed and dictate that the monument be offered to museums, historical societies, governments or battlefields.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, whose district includes Charlottesville, said he opposed the requirements but right now it’s the best compromise the chamber has been able to work out.

“The thing about Charlottesville, at least, is an issue that people have talked about and that council’s been involved with for at least four years,” Deeds said. “So it seems to me that any additional time is unnecessary.”


Correction: This story has been updated to clarify a reference to the recommendations of a Charlottesville commission that studied the city’s Confederate memorials.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.