COURTHOUSE – Amid calls for its removal, officials in Virginia Beach will begin to consider the future of the Confederate monument near the intersection of Princess Anne and North Landing roads at the municipal center.
The Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission will discuss the Confederate monument at the city municipal center during its upcoming meeting scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 6, at the Virginia Beach Convention Center.
The discussion comes in the wake of violence this past month surrounding a rally organized in Charlottesville by white supremacists. The 1905 monument to Princess Anne County Confederate Heroes is now part of a contentious national conversation about how the South’s past is represented in public spaces of modern American communities.
The conversation about the statue here is underway online, involving politicians, activists and proponents of keeping it where it is. On Thursday, Aug. 24, debate came to the courtyard in which the monument stands. Perhaps 100 people attended a rally organized by the Hampton Roads-Eastern Shore chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America in coordination with others, including some people who are candidates for public office.
“Isn’t it time to take down the symbol of slavery and oppression that sits right here in Virginia Beach?” the organization asked in a social media post about the event.
“Here at yet another monument that must come down,” said Shaun Brown, an activist and Democrat who is running for Congress in the Second Virginia District, near the beginning of the rally.
Over nearly two hours, there were some heated moments between people at the rally and counterprotesters, loud voices, even a mock slave auction toward the end of the rally. When the mock auction was over, Dom Bowman of Norfolk, who portrayed an auctioneer, said it was impromptu.
“We understand our history,” he said, “and we will never repeat it. … If that’s our history, let’s show them.”
Moments earlier, Brown had been the subject of the mock sale.
In a video by The Virginian-Pilot shared that evening, Bowman pretended to auction her off — complete with a suggestion of checking her teeth.
The people who want the Confederate monument to come down are doing a mock slave auction. A man just auctioned off candidate Shaun Brown. pic.twitter.com/jL5RuYM9IP
— Alissa Skelton (@AlissaSkelton) August 24, 2017
On both sides, people urged others nearby to keep it together when they became emotional in addressing the other side or journalists. Tempers even showed from traffic at the intersection at the nearby streets.
“Go home,” a man shouted from near the the light.
“You go home,” a woman replied.
The monument was erected at the former site of the Princess Anne Courthouse in 1905 and was paid, in part, from county funds – as well as the efforts of Civil War veterans and their friends and loved ones, according to media accounts from the time.
Dr. Stephen Mansfield, a historian and author, said the monument remembers those who served in the “Lost Cause” at a time when veterans were passing away. Also, there was the idea of the New South, that there was an understanding of economic needs for the South to acknowledge the North. He added that such monuments are also seen in context of the period following the post-Civil War Reconstruction. Many were built then.
He said the timing of some monuments being erected should be understood in the context of the “solidification of Jim Crow segregation.”
Mansfield is the archivist for Virginia Wesleyan University and its former academic dean, as well as serving on the board of the Princess Anne County-Virginia Beach Historical Society. He also is the author of Princess Anne County and Virginia Beach: A Pictorial History, which includes images of the monument.
The monument here briefly escaped scrutiny this past month amid calls to remove such representations of the Confederacy from public grounds elsewhere. It is all but tucked away in a small, parklike yard in a corner of the modern city’s sprawling municipal center, which is why, some officials have said, many people did not even know a Confederate monument exists in Virginia Beach. During one recent visit, some passersby said they had not realized what the statue represented.
“It’s almost invisible,” Mansfield said later.
Relatively recent discussions of the monument among city officials involved investigation of a time capsule said to have been left in the base, though an idea to recover it was scrapped in 2013 due to uncertainty about the condition of the items and because it didn’t make sense to open the structure when it was in good condition.
Leaders in Norfolk and Portmsouth want to try to move monuments in their respective cities, though the mechanics of how that might be done under state law are uncertain, The Pilot reported. Here, too, potential removal efforts are complicated by law protecting war monuments, including those celebrating the Confederacy and its forces.
For now, the conversation continues in Virginia Beach, and, in anticipating the rally at the municipal center, police helped people on both sides express themselves by erecting dry erase boards and chalkboards. These were placed in each of two areas in which the sides were corralled. A wide enclosed area stood empty between barricades denoting the the sides, though the distance was not always maintained.
“We have two different groups of people with two different thoughts,” said police Capt. David Squires, commanding officer of the First Precinct. The goal was to support their right to expression — safely, he said.
A number of people directed some of their energies to the dry erase boards. A few listed names of ancestors who served the Confederacy. In the other area, people called for the monument to Princess Anne County Confederate Heroes to come down. Petitions were placed on one board. Some signed.
At one point, a man wearing a Trump campaign shirt had approached a dry erase board on the side of the people calling for removal. A woman stepped in front of him.
“You’re not going to write on this,” she told him.
“You need to do some research,” he said.
Police approached, and he walked away.
Diane Willoughby of Lake Shores was one of the people who wrote the name of an ancestor who served for the South on a dry erase board. She and her husband came after reading about the event in The Pilot.
“I think they shouldn’t get rid of the statue,” she said, explaining that it honors the dead.
Moments later, a man nearby shouted, “Jesus Christ is on our side.”
“Settle down, brother,” another man said.
On the other side, Frances Roehm of Great Neck spoke of the placement of the monument at the municipal center. She said she had suggested replacing it in a way similar to an idea suggested for Portsmouth’s monument, that it be replaced with an image of the performer Missy Elliott, though with a Virginia Beach twist.
Brown brought it up in remarks for the rally a moment later.
“Guess who she said?” Brown asked.
“Pharrell Williams,” Roehm replied.
“And then we can all be happy,” Brown said, alluding to a song title.
The Rev. Veronica Coleman, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent state Del. Glenn Davis, R-84th, spoke during the rally to remove the monument. She called a reporter over after she had a conversation with a man who wanted the statue preserved, though the man did not want his name published.
“We’re not all screaming and hollering at each other,” Coleman said.
There were no arrests or injuries, though a police officer cut their finger while taking the dry erase boards away amid cleanup.
City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat and is a liaison to the historic preservation commission, on Tuesday, Aug. 22, announced during a council work session that the commission would soon discuss the monument.
“I don’t know that they’re going to have any recommendations at that time,” Wilson said during the meeting, “but they’re going to, as a group, talk about things, and I suggested maybe soliciting ideas from the public. We’ll see where it goes.”
In an interview, Wilson reiterated that public engagement about the monument was important.
City Manager Dave Hansen, also interviewed that day, said he would like to hear recommendations about what to do with the monument from the commission.
He noted that the state code prevents the city from taking action.
“With the state code, we don’t know that we have the authority to really do anything,” said Mark Reed, the city’s historic preservation planner.
To some, this is a simple memorial to the Princess Anne County residents who fought for the Confederacy, a piece of history standing near the former county courthouse.
In an essay appearing in the current print edition of The Independent News, local historian Kenneth Harris discussed why he believes the statue should be protected and remain in place. He is the author of Princess Anne County, Virginia: Its Contributions and Sacrifices to the War Between the States.
“These monuments – not just here in Virginia Beach, but throughout the entire South – weren’t erected to intimidate or insult anyone,” Harris wrote. “They weren’t erected as signs of racism or hate towards anyone. They were erected for one reason and one reason only – to honor the South’s Confederate dead.”
Yet, to others, the monument is a symbol of slavery and racism.
On Saturday, Aug. 19, 8-year-old Tessa Fowler and her family came the monument to leave chalk messages calling for its removal.
Tessa Fowler was with her sister, Sophie, 4, and her mom, Kelly Fowler, a Democrat who is running against incumbent state Del. Ron Villanueva, R-21st District.
During the rally, Tessa Fowler read remarks about a petition drive she started to have the statue removed.
The Saturday before the rally, they were alone with the statue, aside someone who said he came only to photograph the monument. Tessa Fowler said she wanted the city council to remove the monument.
“I want to accomplish getting this statue down,” she said. “The man up there fought for slavery, and we want to fight for freedom for all people.”
The Historic Preservation Commission’s meeting for Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 will be held at 5 p.m. at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, Suite 1, 1000 19th Street. Meetings are open to the public.
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