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Democratic Majority Could Bring Monumental Change to Confederate Symbols in VA 

Virginia has 110 Confederate monuments, many of which are housed in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. Among the most notable are the five towering monuments of Confederate leaders lining Monument Avenue.

Others live in neighborhoods across the city from Church Hill to Bellevue. The city is home to significant Civil War buildings, including the American Civil War Museum and White House of the Confederacy. Street names such as Confederate Avenue inhabit the Northside, while Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederacy, runs along the city and throughout the state.

Schools such as John B. Cary Elementary — named after a Confederate soldier who later served as his district’s superintendent — and George Mason Elementary — named after a slave-owning Founding Father — still exist even though concern for renaming the schools has been articulated.

In recent years, residents have been pushing for the Monument Avenue monuments to come down. But the statues, which represent the dark and violent history of slavery for some Virginians and their families, stand tall, staring down the median of a prominent and busy avenue.

This is in part because the power to remove the monuments has been denied to localities under the Dillon Rule, which allows the state to limit the powers of local governments. However, a new Democratic majority in Virginia’s state legislature may open the door to more local government control — and perhaps the removal of the monuments.

The Dillon Rule is derived from the 1868 written decision by Judge John Dillon of Iowa. Dillon identified local governments as political subdivisions of the state government. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, 39 states apply the Dillon Rule to some capacity. Thirty-one apply it to all localities, while eight use the rule for only certain municipalities. The Virginia Supreme Court adopted the Dillon Rule in 1896.

Because Virginia law states that localities cannot remove war monuments after they have been established, the Dillon Rule has prevented localities such as Richmond and Charlottesville from passing measures to remove their Confederate monuments.

When the General Assembly resumes session in January, a Democratic majority would make it easier for legislators to make a new law stating that local governments have the power to remove Confederate monuments, or a law that bans them outright. John Aughenbaugh, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said a new law is a way he could see localities gain the power to make their own decisions about the monuments.

“I don’t think many members of the General Assembly want to get blamed for upsetting those who still like the monuments,” Aughenbaugh said. “But they’ll be willing to go ahead and give the local governments the authority to make that decision on their own.”

The Jefferson Davis Statue

Jim Nolan, press secretary for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, said that increasing local authority has been a legislative priority for the mayor and will remain one heading into the 2020 General Assembly session. He said the mayor believes the General Assembly should grant authority to allow localities to determine the future of Confederate monuments.

“Cities should have the right to choose if they want to contextualize or permanently remove monuments,” Nolan said.

In recent years, the Richmond City Council voted against two resolutions brought by Councilman Michael Jones requesting that state lawmakers give the city authority on what to do with the monuments. The resolutions would have put pressure on lawmakers to give the city authority. However, the General Assembly is not the only avenue for localities to gain the power to remove their monuments. Aughenbaugh said he predicts a locality will sue for the right to remove their monuments and the Virginia Supreme Court will be the deciding body.

One city has already brought such a suit. Earlier this year, Norfolk filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, arguing that requiring the city to keep a Confederate monument was contrary to their freedom of speech. The suit has not been decided yet.

More than 1,800 Confederate symbols stand in 22 states as of February, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Virginia, with 262 Confederate symbols, has more than any other state and has removed 17 of its symbols since the racially-charged Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in which nine African-Americans were murdered, the organization said.

For decades, Richmond has sought to offset Confederate symbols. In 1996, a sixth statue was added to Monument Avenue depicting Arthur Ashe, an African American tennis champion from Richmond. Earlier this year the Richmond City Council voted to rename the Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary School was renamed Barack Obama Elementary after a 6-1 vote by the Richmond Public School Board in 2018. Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts unveiled Tuesday, in front of a welcoming crowd, Kehinde Wiley’s statue “Rumors of War,” which depicts a black man in classic equestrian portraiture — a response to the monuments on Monument Avenue.

Virginia has been center stage in the national debate regarding the potential removal of Confederate monuments. In August 2017, the nation was rocked with news of violent clashes in Charlottesville. A “Unite the Right” rally and counter-demonstration were the climax of a months-long battle over the fate of a Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue that the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove.

At the protest, James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist who traveled from Ohio to the event, drove his car into a crowd, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The night before the protest, participants gathered in the park with tiki torches and chanted slogans including the Nazi-associated phrase “blood and soil.”

After the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, Stoney created the Monument Avenue Commission in 2017 in hopes of creating new ways to remember Richmond’s history while addressing the past memorialized on Monument Avenue. Its first meeting took place days before Heyer died counter-protesting in Charlottesville.

“Richmond has a long, complex and conflicted history, and the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue represents a shameful part of our past,” Stoney said in the commission’s 117-page report. “The majority of the public acknowledges Monument Avenue cannot and should not remain exactly as it is. Change is needed and desired.”

After 11 months of public deliberation, the commission suggested solutions, which included:

  •  Moving the monuments to a museum and creating a permanent exhibit, including a deeper historical look into the history of the monuments by creating a mobile app and a film that ensures historical accuracy.

  • Adding permanent signage that reflects the historic, biographical, artistic and changing meaning over time for each monument.

  • Erecting a monument that pays homage to the resilience of the formerly enslaved.

  • Having local artists create contemporary pieces that bring new meaning to Monument Avenue.

  • Removing the Jefferson Davis statue.

The city cannot implement these suggestions, however, if state law overrides local laws.

House Bill 2377 was introduced by former Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, in the 2019 General Assembly session. It would have given localities the power to remove or add context to their monuments, but it did not pass the then-Republican majority House.

For those who oppose the monuments, hope is on the rise. Democrats hold both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governorship after the Nov. 5 elections — a power that has not been seen in over 20 years.

Several of the newly elected legislators have spoken out against the monuments, including Democratic Sen.-elect Ghazala Hashmi, Democratic Del.-elect Sally Husdon, and Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk. Hudson plans to introduce legislation very similar to Toscano’s bill — Jones said he will co-sponsor the legislation.

In November, Jones tweeted: “The ‘monuments’ are nothing more than vestigial symbols of oppression and hate that need to come down – ESPECIALLY if it is the locality’s choice. We’re moving VA into the 21st century rather than ‘honoring’ the failures of the 19th.”

This was not the first time Jones touched on this subject. During Black History month in February, following Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal, Jones stood in front of the House of Delegates and made a personal speech.

Jones talked about “two Virginias,” a white one and a black one, and how they have existed “in parallel along the same arc of history, frequently intersecting, but never running together as one. Two different experiences, born from the same beginning four hundred years ago and still never merged into one shared story.”

According to Jones, “glorification of the Confederacy via monuments and flags in public spaces,” are examples of how white Virginians “consciously or unconsciously attempted to demonstrate its power over black Virginians.”

In describing the racially-charged differences between Virginians, Jones said, “It seems that we have not come far enough to understand the hurt and pain and the effect on those who grew up in the shadow of separate but not equal. Thirty years on, throughout the duration of my life, we are still struggling mightily with race in our state.”

If localities are given the authority to legislate the fate of their monuments, Nolan said Stoney and his administration will ask the city’s History and Culture Commission to make recommendations and commit to following a process in accordance to solutions provided by the Monument Avenue Commission.

McKenzie Lambert and Susan Shibut / Capital News Service

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