A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville that white supremacist protesters rallied around in 2017. (Ned Oliver /Virginia Mercury)
Voters in six rural counties voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to keep courthouse monuments to the Confederacy — imagery that more populous cities and counties have rushed to remove amid a renewed national reckoning on race.
Before this year, local governments in Virginia were prohibited under state law from removing Confederate statues. New Democratic majorities in the General Assembly changed that earlier this year, passing a bill that allowed localities to remove the memorials, but also giving them the authority to hold ballot referendums to give voters a chance to weigh in before taking action.
While leaders in cities like Richmond and Norfolk moved swiftly to remove monuments amid widespread protests over the summer, leaders in six rural counties — Charles City, Franklin, Halifax, Lunenburg, Tazewell and Warren — decided to exercise their new authority to put the question to voters.
By wide margins, voters in the largely conservative jurisdictions said they should stay, with support for the statues ranging from 55 percent in Charles City County to 87 percent in Tazewell, according to preliminary results.
“I voted no on that — leave it where it is,” said Steve Thompson, a Republican voter in Franklin. “That’s our history. Too many people are trying to remove our history, either through the courts or through violence. This is the proper way to do it — put it on the ballot.”
But James Vaughan, a supporter of President Donald Trump from Rocky Mount, said the statue should go. “I feel like that you’ve got a monument to a rebellion, standing in front of a place that is for everybody,” Vaughan said. “It’s a government building in the United States. Even Robert E. Lee said there shouldn’t be any monuments, that it should be buried so the country can move on. I’ve kind of educated myself about when those statues were erected, and I feel like they never should have been put up in the first place.”
The referendums are nonbinding, meaning the local boards could still decide to remove the statues, but local leaders said they were unlikely to buck the results.
“Whatever citizens say is where I am going,” Tazewell Supervisor Mike Hymes told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.
The outcomes disappointed activists who had pushed for the memorials’ removal. They noted that the minority populations of all but one of the counties in question are small and that leaving the decision to a simple up or down vote ignores the people most impacted by the statues’ presence. The exception, Charles City County, has more Black residents (47%) than White residents (42%).
“They set us up for failure,” Bridgette Craighead, the co-founder of the Franklin County chapter of Black Lives Matter, told The Roanoke Times. “That’s exactly what the Franklin County Board of Supervisors did to us today.”
Glenna Moore, a resident of Franklin, remained resolute, telling the newspaper that, “It will come down eventually. These young people are really determined and focused.”
Virginia Mercury correspondent Mason Adams contributed to this story.
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