OCEANFRONT – Virginia Beach officials moved the September meeting of the city’s historic preservation commission to the Virginia Beach Convention Center to accommodate a discussion about the future of the 1905 Confederate Monument, the subject of recent petitions seeking its removal or protection and a rally this past month following violence in Charlottesville and rallies about symbols of the Confederacy in neighboring cities.
The commission usually has a handful of people in attendance. This evening, 42 citizens signed up to comment about the monument to those from Princess Anne County who fought for the South. Dozens more listened. Including some less contentious early business, the commission meeting lasted about three hours.
City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at large seat and serves as a council liaison to the commission, noted that this was a piece of a wider conversation about representations of the Confederacy and race in America. Around the nation, Wilson said, “it’s in the hearts and the minds of lots and lots of people.”
There were historians, descendents of longtime local families, citizens old and young and in between, members of organizations of sons or daughters of the Confederacy, activists and at least a couple of people seeking public office. When those who signed up had spoken, Bill Gambrell, chairperson of the commission, asked if others wanted to speak.
Some hands went up, and those people had a chance, too, to join a conversation that surely will continue.
Among many issues, people are considering whether monuments such as the one near the old courthouse at the municipal center here represent slavery or do nothing of the sort, honor local veterans who were fighting for their commonwealth, and also why some monuments were erected amid the time of Jim Crow laws.
“The commission doesn’t intend to make a recommendation, per se, to the city council,” Gambrell said near the start of the gathering.
He said the group would share information with the council, but no timeframe was offered.
Throughout the meeting, Gambrell thanked all of the people who spoke, guided them toward a resolution of a last idea when speaking time expired, and gently reminded a room full of people and journalists that the commission does more work than this — and that the help of volunteers, perhaps young blood, is needed in the commission’s work in the city.
Generally, the conversation was a civil one, and several members of the commission noted this toward the end of the evening. There was emotion and some clear frustrations. One woman said those who took offense at a statue should “get over it,” and one man, who was white, said, “If it’s such a big deal within the black community, why aren’t there more of them here?”
A few people in the audience groaned at the latter comment. Someone in the front of the room held up a red paddle to signal that the man’s time was up.
“Time’s up,” someone quipped in the back.
“Thanks for coming tonight,” Gambrell offered, and the next speaker was up.
Others suggested a vote by the people to determine the fate of the statue, perhaps by a referendum, though there has been no indication that the city will leave such a decision to a popular vote.
Still others simply wanted the statue preserved because it has historic value, perhaps with more context for modern visitors to the government center.
Or even another statue nearby denoting those people sold as slaves at the old courthouse.
Some simply wanted to be heard, to express that the issue was important.
“I don’t have a cool resume like everybody else, but I am an American citizens,” said James Tackeberry of Kempsville, who noted elements of a city handout about the statue’s history during his remarks.
He said he simply wanted the commission to understand that the statue means a lot to many people.
A young man, who gave his name only as Justin when a reporter sought it, noted during his remarks that it was hard for him to speak about the issue while his heart was pounding. He was white, and he said it must be confusing for black children to see a statue that says “Confederate heroes.”
He rejected the assertion by some that the Civil War was not about slavery.
“It changed the future,” he said, speaking of the war.
The Rev. Dr. Veronica Coleman, who is seeking public office and who spoke at the rally in August to remove the monument, discussed her experiences growing up in Virginia Beach and the power of symbols of the Confederacy today to intimidate.
“I suspect most people know this even if they won’t admit it,” Coleman said. “They have become the rallying point for the amplification of hate-filled speech. … If my neighbor is hurting, I don’t turn aside and cite heritage.”
Some speakers noted that those represented by the monument to Princess Anne County Confederate Heroes, which shows a common soldier and not known generals, as other monuments do, must be treated with the respect due veterans.
“We are a military community,” said Glen Robertson. “These men answered the call … They are American veterans. In Virginia Beach, we honor our veterans.”
Gerthel Wolfe of Ocean Lakes said, “I am not a historian. My history was stolen from me.”
She said she expected more of her city in response to concerns of residents about the statue.
“I think removing the statue would be better for the city,” she said.
Among the speakers was Kenneth Harris, the author of Princess Anne County, Virginia: Its Contributions and Sacrifices to the War Between the States. Harris wrote an essay about the history of the monument that ran in the Friday, Aug. 25, edition of The Independent News.
Additionally, Harris started a petition to preserve the monument that has collected a number of signatures at local businesses.
Harris, in his remarks, compared the monument to a headstone.
“That monument was put there for one reason and one reason only – to honor the men who fell on the battlefield from Princess Anne County,” he said.
Muriel Thomas, who had spoken about the monument an evening earlier during a city council meeting, said her heart thinks of her ancestors when she considers the monument.
There is no statue at the government center showing someone who was enslaved or a hero such as Harriet Tubman, she noted. She also addressed the comments of the man who wondered why there weren’t more black people complaining.
“I’m not so sure that has anything to do with it,” she said.
She mentioned her own pain at the monument.
“I speak for many who are not here,” she added.
Rabbi Israel Zoberman, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach, said it can be painful to look at history.
Many spoke about what stands in a courtyard near the intersection of Princess Anne and North Landing roads, but he also pointed out what is absent.
“Where the monument stands, there is not even a small marker that says slaves were auctioned off,” he said.
Following the conversation, Wilson said she was proud of the discussion.
“You have diverse opinions, but you respected each other,” she said.
She noted that the statue showed a foot soldier, and she, too, noted that wider perspective may be needed in the courtyard.
“There’s a whole other side of the story that’s not being told,” Wilson said. “We need to tell more of the story.”
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