The Stonewall Jackson monument on Richmond's Monument Avenue before it was taken down. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

RICHMOND – The fate of Charlottesville’s controversial statue of Robert E. Lee at the site of the deadly Unite the Right rally was sealed in December, when the city council unanimously voted to donate it to the local Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which has vowed to melt it down and use it as raw material for a new public artwork.

On Friday, a little over 70 miles away in Richmond, a Republican-led House committee, over concerns of creating an unfunded mandate for localities effectively killed a proposal that would have prevented a locality like Charlottesville from unilaterally deciding to alter, contextualize or destroy any war memorial in the commonwealth.

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County

The legislation, sponsored by newly elected Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, would have required the city council to appoint an independent panel of experts – at the locality’s expense – to determine the fate of a memorial deemed to be removed.

“Currently, municipalities have the right to vote to remove or take down their war memorials and statues that are within their locality. That doesn’t change,” Williams told members of a House Cities, Counties & Towns Subcommittee Friday. “But what it does change is who gets to make the decision about what happens to those pieces of art and pieces of history, and it removes it from the usually fiery, testy, and politically driven decisions that you might see with the city council,” Williams. 

The committee he envisions would make an “unemotional, objective decision about what would happen with these pieces of art,” Williams said, and then it would make a recommendation “to place it with a museum or nonprofit that is in the same spirit of the memorial.”

According to his legislation, the panel “must contain two members of the locality’s governing body or the chief administrator of the locality, and three members of the general public. One public member shall be a resident of the locality, and the other two public members shall have expertise on war memorials in the commonwealth.” 

While neither Williams nor his proposal singled out any particular war monuments, the recent culture war over Confederate monuments and their divisive history that has led to the removal of dozens of statues across the commonwealth in the past two years, including almost a dozen in Richmond, was the big elephant in the room.

Williams said in an email Friday that he was inspired to write the proposal “because the ‘woke left’ has shown they are determined to vandalize and tear down any historical monument for a person who wouldn’t meet our shared moral standards today. It started with Civil War memorials, but now they have targeted our founders and patriots of the American Revolution. And the left won’t stop there, because they have no limiting principles.“

Committee member Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassass, asked Williams outright if his legislation would have prevented Charlottesville’s city council from gifting the city’s Robert E. Lee statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. “Would the city council in this case by voting to give this statue to the Center have run afoul of this new language, had this language already been adopted?” Roem asked. 

Williams responded that under his proposal, the city council would not get to make that decision – this would be left to the committee of experts the council would have to appoint. “That is somewhat what this law seeks to do, is to remove the partisanship that you see in some of these decisions and hand it over to more neutral, objective individuals who have more experience and expert knowledge in the importance of our memorials,” he said.

Roem’s question set off a somewhat fiery exchange with Williams when she followed up by quoting a provision in Williams’ bill that required a locality to gift a statue intended for removal “to a nonprofit organization that is most related to the mission and spirit of the monument or memorial, at the locality’s expense.” 

“Would the patron object to the idea that anyone from the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center is somehow not related to the mission in spirit of taking down a statue that was put up in the first place to celebrate the people who enslaved their ancestors?” Roem asked.

Williams responded that this would be the decision of the experts tasked with this purpose. “The committee would get together and decide what would be best and most closely related to what makes the most sense,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to completely legislate around this, because … let’s say 20 years from now everybody hates the Iraq war, and then we start taking down the monuments related to that. This is meant to separate that partisanship and tackle a number of war memorials, all of them.”

Roem then asked Williams if he was trying to equate the Iraq war with “our veterans who served there” with the “lost cause” of the Civil War “and everything that’s embodied in that,” but Williams countered that his bill would protect all war memorials and monuments, “and the goal would be to separate those who shake their fists in the air and say ‘everything needs to be torn down to the ground.’”

Williams’s measure was supported by some in the room, including Andrew Morehead, a former supervisor of Hanover County who has previously called activists pushing to remove Confederate statues “evil people.” 

“I personally take offense at the city of Charlottesville giving the Lee monument to the Black art school, not because it’s a Black art school but because they have every intention of destroying one of Virginia’s greatest economic resources,” Morehead said. “This will not stop, all things Confederate are low hanging fruit now. It is going to move on to the Founders, the very Capitol is up for grabs.”

Morehead implored the Republican leadership of the committee to fully support Williams’s proposal, “because once Virginia’s monuments are gone, our history, our culture, and everything Virginian is gone. And to the point of these people being slaveholders and inherently racist, these were different times.”

But Joanna Faust, assistant county attorney in Fairfax County, said that there was no need for an independent commission to establish the fate of monuments deemed for removal. 

“We understand the need for expertise in the commonwealth to have their input considered and heard, but that is already done at the public hearing,” Faust said, adding that Fairfax County frequently, holds public hearings where hundreds of citizens are given the opportunity to weigh in, including on the removal of Civil War monuments. 

Williams’s proposal, Faust added, would “mandate an independent committee that the locality would then be controlled as to the location or relocation of public property and at the public’s expense,” she said. “It’s unclear to us how the governing body would choose someone with such expertise, what that means, whether a professor of history or a history buff, and we would be creating a committee that controls the decisions of elected officials.”

Concerned with an unfunded mandate, Del. Mike Cherry, a Republican and former city council member in Colonial Heights, suggested that Williams bring back his bill next year, allowing him more time to work on the legislation. 

“I’ve worked in local government, and when the state told me that I had to do something but then didn’t give me the money to do it, I got kind of frustrated with that,” Cherry said. “So when you actually put the phrasing in there ‘at the locality’s expense,’ that’s going to be a challenge for me.”

And Del. Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, the chairman of the House panel and a former Roanoke County supervisor, also expressed some unease about the makeup of the committee proposed in Williams’s measure. 

“I have a real concern with a committee that is going to make a decision that a locality has to agree with, and four out of the six members of that committee are not elected officials,” McNamara said. “Literally you could have, according to this bill, three out of six people in this committee don’t even need to live in the locality where these decisions are being made, so I think there are some areas where we can spend some time in the off-season and come back again next year.”

In his email, Williams vowed to bring back his proposal in 2023. “When this bill is taken up again next session, we must pass it into law to protect the monuments that haven’t already been damaged, disposed of, or melted down while career politicians failed to act,” he said. “I will not rest until all the artifacts of our nation’s history – the good and the bad – are protected and preserved for future generations to see and remember.”

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Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.