Rules for ‘recontextualizing’ Virginia’s Confederate statues delayed after opponents object

Opposition to fast-tracked process could delay regulations for years

By: - March 31, 2022 12:03 am

A fence surrounds the pedestal that formerly held a massive bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. Regulations that would allow localities to provide new context to Confederate monuments has been delayed by opponents. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Under Virginia’s regulatory process, “fast-tracking” can be a relative term.

Two years after Virginia lawmakers voted to give local government power to remove or modify Confederate monuments, state officials chose the fast track to finalize regulations on who gets the final say on the historical accuracy of any modifications to those statues.

Those pending rules, which would give historians and preservationists at the Virginia Board of Historic Resources the power to approve or reject new Civil War signage sought by local governments, were set to take effect in April after a 30-day public comment period.

But because enough people objected to the fast-track process, generally used for uncontroversial topics, the state will now have to go through a lengthier review process that could significantly delay the regulations. 

“It can take two or three years,” said Stephanie Williams, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The regulations, a legally required piece of the 2020 bill that cleared the way for cities and counties to remove Confederate statues altogether, essentially extend the power state experts already have over regular historical markers, giving them the same abilities to review any new text before it can be added to a Confederate memorial.

Even though having a formal contextualization process is mandatory under state law, the objections show the extent to which Civil War history remains contentious even when relegated to the more obscure areas of state government.

One of the first public comments posted after the regulations were published earlier this month came from Jock Yellott, a retired Charlottesville lawyer who has fought to preserve Confederate monuments. Among other objections, he opposed a provision suggesting applications for new signage include information about who was “excluded from the process of creating the monument or memorial.” The idea that Confederate statues were about “exclusion,” he wrote, “is latter-day political opinion, not historical fact.”

Instead of mandating a wooden recital of the Woke Party Line,  littering our landscape with diatribes looking at monuments through today’s Left-wing political prism — the regulations should promote diversity of information,” Yellott wrote.

In a March 14 post on the right-leaning website Bacon’s Rebellion, Yellott encouraged others to object to the regulations, suggesting a delay could give Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares an opportunity to modify the process.

As of Wednesday, 31 comments had been posted on the state’s official regulatory site, more than enough to meet the 10 objections required to overrule the fast-tracked timeline.

“We don’t need some government board telling us what to think,” wrote one commenter.

“This is part of a neo-Marxist movement to bulldoze the past,” wrote another.

Several opponents raised concerns new signs could be inaccurate. But Williams said verification and accuracy is exactly what the regulations are meant to provide.

“This kind of takes all of the other politicizing of things out of it and puts it in our department where we have a historian on staff who is not biased in either way,” Williams said. “Who just looks at the history.”

Unlike other Virginia Republicans, Youngkin didn’t take a firm pro-monument stance during last year’s campaign, saying he agreed with the decision to take down the state-owned Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond but hoped it could go to a battlefield or museum so we “won’t forget our history.” While serving in the House of Delegates, Miyares opposed the bill clearing the way for statues to come down.

It’s unclear how many localities might even be interested in adding new signage to Confederate monuments. Many cities and counties have come down firmly on the side of removing them altogether or leaving them untouched.

With the process for adding historical context now delayed, it’s unclear if local governments have the legal authority to add new signage before the regulations are finalized. The 2020 law empowered localities to remove, relocate, cover or “contextualize” war monuments, while specifying contextualization would be governed by the now-delayed regulations.

Asked if local governments currently have the power to add new text to Civil War monuments, Williams said she didn’t know. How the law applies without the accompanying regulations in place, she said, may be up to courts to decide.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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