‘A huge step’: General Assembly says local governments can remove Confederate monuments

By: - March 8, 2020 4:52 pm
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around on Aug. 12 last year.

A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around in 2017. (Ned Oliver /Virginia Mercury)

Cities and counties around Virginia will be allowed to remove the Confederate monuments they own and maintain under legislation the General Assembly sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday.

The vote comes two and a half years after a fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which the city was blocked from taking down under a state law protecting war memorials.

“It’s a huge step, but it’s just one more step in a long process,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. “In the short term what it means is this decision making will go back to Charlottesville where it belongs.”

In the two years following the rally, the city pushed the state to amend the code as they fought a lawsuit challenging their vote to change the law, but Republican majorities blocked the legislation.

Leaders in Norfolk have also sought to remove a Confederate statue from a downtown street and a commission in Richmond recommended the city take down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from its Monument Avenue.

New Democratic majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate this year broadly agreed local governments should be able to decide where and how they memorialize the Confederacy, but differed on the process localities should have to go through before taking action.

The Senate had proposed a 100-plus day process that included a mandatory review by the state’s Department of Historic Resources at the localities’ expense. It also pushed to require local governing boards to approve any changes by a supermajority two-thirds vote, a threshold Charlottesville would not have met with its 2017 vote on the issue.

Lawmakers in the House opposed those requirements and ultimately were successful in negotiating final language that requires only a 30-day notice ahead of a public hearing. If localities choose, they can also hold a local referendum on the question.

Virginia Democrats at odds over terms of Confederate statue removals

“If we’re going to give local authority to these localities, I just don’t think we should drag the bill down by attaching additional requirements or weakening their authority,” said Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who carried the legislation in the House.

The debate grew emotional as the legislative session came to a close last week, with Republicans arguing the bill would only heighten racial divisions and one black lawmaker breaking down in tears as she explained the pain the statues caused her and her community.

Ultimately, the legislation passed the House over unanimous opposition by Republicans and won votes from two Republicans in the Senate, Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta.

Reeves told his colleagues on the floor he supported the bill because it did include some ground rules localities must follow. Among them, the law stipulates the statues can’t be destroyed and local governments must offer the statues they are removing to “any museum, historical society, government, or military battlefield,” though the locality retains the final authority to determine where they will go.

“It takes the politics out of it,” he said. “You’re not going to see them bulldozed on TV.”

The legislation also blocks removing memorials that are in cemeteries or on the campus of Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson was an instructor. It instructs the Department of Historic Resources to develop regulations governing how localities that choose to retain add historical context.

Northam has said he backs the legislation.

“It means the world to know that the governor supports it so we can count on his signature,” Hudson said.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the title of Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond.

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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.