FRONT ROYAL – The Board of Supervisors wants a November referendum asking citizens whether they think the Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn should be removed.
Three petitions are circulating online regarding the statue with one calling for its removal, one calling for its removal and relocation and one calling for it to remain where it is. The statue, which has been on the courthouse lawn since 1911, does not depict a particular individual but rather a general representation of a Confederate soldier. Plaques on the statue list 600 names of local residents who fought for the Confederacy.
During a regular Tuesday meeting, the supervisors approved a resolution asking a circuit court judge to place on the ballot in the Nov. 3 election the question: “Should the confederate monument located on the Warren County Courthouse lawn be relocated?” It would be a non-binding referendum, meaning the supervisors could honor the results or not.
During a public comment period that lasted over an hour, some citizens expressed umbrage over the fact that they were not aware the matter would be on Tuesday’s agenda.
For the referendum to be on the November ballot, Interim County Attorney Jason Ham said a court order approving it must be entered by Aug. 14 so “it would be wise to act today.” Noting that the supervisors do not have another meeting until Aug. 18, Supervisor Tony Carter explained the “time-frame issue” resulted in it being a last-minute addition to Tuesday’s agenda.
“I appreciate the petitions that are out there…but I think the final petition in a non-binding effort will be the referendum and then everybody had a chance to voice their support on whichever way to go,” Carter said.
Carter added that the vote will be an opportunity “for both sides to commit to a dialogue and talk with each other and not at each other and be able to hopefully have a better understanding of what this means to different people.”
During a public comment period, resident Richard Hoover said that the statue should be used to understand the past. He noted that most people who fought for the Confederacy merely “went with Virginia,” meaning they would have fought for the Union had that been the side the state sided with.
Hoover noted that Samuel Porter, co-founder of the Front Royal Unites activist group seeking to remove and relocate the statue, recently said the monument makes him “sick to my stomach.” Hoover said such sentiments display “a disinterest in the past” and “an ignorance of culture” by reducing history to politics.
Porter said during the public comment period that he is “far from ignorant,” citing that he has “several degrees, all honors, summa cum laude.”
“I’m far from ignorant. But this isn’t about me the individual, this is about the people collectively, Black people, people of color,” he said.
Porter asked how a Black person can walk into the courthouse expecting justice upon seeing a symbol representing oppression. He added that the county can “do much better than that” and the statue’s relocation would show “that we’re better than that.”
“Of course it may be heritage and history but make sure when we rely on that heritage and history you get into the context of what that heritage and history really stands for because I assure [the Civil War] was definitely over slavery,” he said.
Lawyer David Silek said during the public comment period that Porter’s argument claiming Black people cannot expect justice at the courthouse because of the statue is a “red herring.” He said this necessitates all judges and prosecutors being racist, which is an “absurd” notion.
Silek added that “cancel culture” is “nothing new,” noting that statues and art were destroyed by the Bolsheviks, “then the brown shirts of the Nazi party” and then the Taliban. Then, Silek said “a group called ISIS comes about…and destroys statues from the beginning of time.”
“The cancel culture you hear a lot about today is the modern American version of these extremist groups. At some point we have to say ‘no,’” he said.
Silek added that just about five of the 600 individuals listed on the statue owned slaves.
Resident Stevi Hubbard noted that the relocation of the statue would be a compromise. She said it would allow those with family members who served in the Confederacy to “honor their loved ones” while being “less offensive to those that are offended by the statue, by its placement at our county courthouse.”
Hubbard added that many Black people cannot trace their “historical roots” so “we can’t know what our great-great-great granddaddy was feeling and doing at that time of that war because we were completely disenfranchised.
“I urge any of you that are wanting it to stay to help me understand....how my children are supposed to look at that statue and say ‘oh, that doesn’t say that I’m a second class citizen, that doesn’t say that the atrocities and terrors that happened to me and my people don’t matter,’” she said.