Confederates win: Subcommittee kills bill to give localities control of statues

Supporters of Confederate statues line up to speak at a House of Delegates subcommittee January 30.
Staff photo Supporters of Confederate statues line up to speak at a House of Delegates subcommittee January 30. Staff photo

Ultimately, no one was surprised that a House of Delegates subcommittee, made up of eight white men, killed a bill that would let Virginia localities decide what to do with Confederate monuments–not even the bill’s sponsor, Delegate David Toscano.

“They knew when we walked in what they would do with that bill,” said Toscano following the January 30 meeting. The subcommittee has five Republican and three Democrats, and one of the Dems joined in the 6-2 vote against the bill.

About a dozen Charlottesville supporters of the bill, including two elected officials, came for the 7:30am meeting of Counties, Cities and Towns Subcommittee #1. Some held signs during the proceeding: “Local authority for war memorials,” “Truthful history heals,” and “Lose the Lost Cause.”

And five opponents of the bill, none of whom were from Charlottesville, spoke against local control of Confederate monuments in public places.

Following the August 12, 2017, Unite the Right rally that brought hundreds of white supremacists to Charlottesville, ostensibly to protest City Council’s vote to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee in what’s now called Market Street Park, Toscano carried a bill to give localities control over their own war monuments. Current state law makes it illegal for anyone to remove a memorial commemorating any war. That bill died a quick death in subcommittee in 2018, and this year’s version specified Confederate monuments only.

“It’s about local control,” Toscano told the subcommittee. “We give localities control of the cutting of weeds, but we haven’t yet given them control of monuments that might have a detrimental effect on the atmosphere and feelings of this community.”

The 1902 statute protecting war memorials “popped up just at the time of Jim Crow,” said Toscano, at the “height of the so-called Lost Cause celebration of the Confederate contribution to the Civil War.”

Subcommittee chair Charles Poindexter asked about the monuments, “Weren’t they also concurrent with the dying out of Confederate veterans?”

Toscano rejected the notion that Virginia was involved in a “heroic battle” during the Civil War. “This was an effort to destroy the Union.”

Justin Greenlee, who studies art and architectural history at UVA, told the subcommittee Confederate statues are “a monument to white supremacy,” and portray a “false story of history. They continue to intimidate.”

Lisa Draine, whose daughter was injured when self-proclaimed neo-Nazi James Fields accelerated into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, said, “I couldn’t imagine that the statues brought this to our town.”

And Don Gathers, who served on the city’s Blue Ridge Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, implored the subcommittee: “Please recognize the hatred these statues brought to descend upon our city.”

Ned Gallaway, Albemarle Board of Supervisors chair, and City Councilor Kathy Galvin both stressed the importance of local control over Confederate monuments.

Richmond native Ed Willis said a bill to allow localities to remove Civil War monuments discriminated against his “Confederate national origin.” staff photo

Among the bill’s opponents was Chesterfield resident Ed Willis, who said the bill was unconstitutional. “It’s painfully clear that discrimination based on national origin—on Confederate national origin—is the purpose of this bill.” He also said the legislature couldn’t do anything that would affect the ongoing lawsuit against the city and City Council for its vote to remove both the Lee and General Stonewall Jackson monuments.

Virginia Beach resident Frank Earnest, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit and “heritage defense coordinator” for Virginia’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, warned that like “other socialist takeovers, it’ll be Confederate statues today, but don’t think they won’t be back next year to expand it to another war, another time in history.”

He said it was the “improper actions of the city government of Charlottesville” that caused the events of August 12, and that he resented anyone saying Confederates were there. “They were not.” He presented the officials with what he said were 2,000 signatures of Virginians opposed to removing Confederate monuments.

One of the three Democrats on the subcommittee made a motion to move the bill forward, to no avail.

Toscano called the vote “disappointing but not surprising.” He said the “discrimination” objection was “unbelievable,” and joked about whether people would be checking a Confederate national origin box on their census forms.

A bill that would allow localities like Charlottesville to relocate Confederate statues failed in a House of Delegates subcommittee January 30. staff photo

UVA professor Frank Dukes, who also served on the Blue Ribbon Commission, said he was surprised the vote “wasn’t even close. I think it’s so hypocritical from people who constantly talk about local control.”

Nor was Gathers surprised, except for the one Democrat—Portsmouth Delegate Stephen Heretick—joining in with Republicans to vote against the measure.

UVA prof and activist Jalane Schmidt pointed out that it took 10 years to get the “Johnny Reb” statue erected in front of the Albemarle courthouse, and that it could take 10 years to remove Confederate monuments.

“It’s about changing hearts and minds,” she said. “It’s about changing representation.”

The General Assembly is held by a slim Republican majority in both houses, and all legislators are up for reelection this year.

For the moment, however, Confederate supporters had a victory they could savor. As they headed to the elevators, one expressed his thoughts: “Those people in Charlottesville are crazy.”