Byrd statue on Capitol Square to get sign noting his role in Massive Resistance

A statue of Harry Byrd Sr. in Capitol Square will get signage noting his role as the architect of the state's policy of massive resistance to the integration of public schools. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Alongside an interminable back and forth concerning elephant rides at a roadside zoo, it was one of the stranger subplots of this year’s legislative session: A freshman Republican lawmaker proposed a bill to remove a statue of Harry Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square.

He said he only did it because he wanted Democrats to think twice about their own bills addressing Confederate statues, apparently reasoning that the opposing party would bristle at the prospect of felling a statue of a fellow Democrat, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator who is now best known for his role leading Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” campaign against integration of public schools.

“It’s kind of like playing chess,” Del. Wendell S. Walker, R-Lynchburg, told The Washington Post. “You’re just calling somebody’s bluff.”

But it turned out Democrats liked the idea, prompting Walker to ask them to kill his own bill. Democratic leaders in the House initially denied the request but eventually agreed to let him withdraw the legislation.

The story, it turns out, did not end there.

Tucked away in the budget the General Assembly returned to Gov. Ralph Northam was a clause calling for new signage around the statue, which is currently silent on his status as an avowed segregationist.

The budget language, approved by Northam, sets aside $50,000 that “shall be available for the development of interpretive signs regarding the history of Massive Resistance to incorporate these signs beside the statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr.”

It’s not clear who exactly proposed the idea — a budget amendment addressing the issue was never submitted and no one on the House or Senate side was clear on who might have proposed it.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, most of whom weren’t aware of the proposal when they voted on the massive budget bill, said they were fine with it.

“If we’re going to put signage with Lee and Jefferson and Washington, why not Byrd?” said Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin, as the legislative session came to a close. He was among the more outspoken opponents of legislation allowing local governments to remove Confederate monuments. “The more people know about all of history, the more we understand the past.”

With a freeze on all new spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unclear when the new signs will be erected.

Colleen Dugan Messick, the director of the Capitol Square Preservation Council, which is charged with developing the new signage, suggested it would likely be incorporated into a larger ongoing project to install “unified interpretive signage throughout the Capitol and Capitol Square as well as web-based applications to support a visitor-friendly website geared toward teachers and visitors as well as possibly an app.”

Given the pandemic, she estimated the project wouldn’t wrap up until the first half of 2021.