Since 1901, a silent stone sentinel has overseen Charlotte Courthouse’s green. Depending on who you talk to, the statue, erected by the United Confederate Veterans, is a symbol of oppression or one of remembrance. It’s one of many in the commonwealth that were erected on public lands in the early 1900s by pro-Confederacy groups. And as such, it’s been the subject of local debate for the last few years.
But this weekend, Charlotte County will unveil a sign — the first of its kind — interpreting the Confederate monument. They’ll do so at a 1 p.m. ceremony this Saturday on the courthouse green. (The words on the sign will not be revealed until then.)
This event is the culmination of a year of research by three local women who hold starkly different views on the symbol, but who worked together to provide context rooted in historical fact so visitors might understand the full weight of what they see. Monique Williams, a teacher and activist for social justice, and Kathy Liston, an archaeologist and historian, were appointed by the county’s board of supervisors to explore a way to contextualize the monument last year. They were joined by Cora St. John, president of the Charlotte County Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The three spent a year researching, writing and designing the text and images used on the sign.
Liston said the last year has forced her to read books that she never would have considered before, especially those on “Lost Cause” rhetoric and where the pro-monument supporters are coming to the conversation from.
“It was not easy but I’m glad I did it,” she said. “That is the extent to which we researched the issue. It brought us out of our comfort zones.”
The novel approach was entirely crafted by the committee of three, and Liston hopes that other localities can learn from their process if they, too, want to contextualize their monuments. Liston explained: “We worked hard to be fair. And we worked well together. There was an atmosphere of genuine respect.”
Too many, she said, are tabling the issue and never really addressing the monuments in a substantive way. As a historian, she said she brought an objective viewpoint to the group.
“The sign is not telling you how to feel. It asks you to read, then make up your own mind,” she said.
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The plinth of the monument reads:
“1861-1865/ Gloria Victis/ Confederate soldiers/
Charlotte County/ cherishes the memory/ of her heroes
Noble deeds/ are a people’s inspiration
Erected under the auspices of/ H.A. Carrington Camp C.V. No. 34./ August 27, 1901.
“Non sibl sed patriae.”
Words like “noble,” “cherish,” “heroes” and “inspiration” paint a picture of a locality that upholds the values of the Confederacy — not one that considers the impact of a statue like this on its Black residents, for Williams.
It’s a conversation she’s had with her middle school-aged son many times around the dinner table: why their county venerates people who fought to keep his ancestors enslaved, why symbols like this exist and why he doesn’t see people like them in positions of power — on boards, in county administration or otherwise making decisions for locals at high levels. (Charlotte County is 26.6% Black, according to the latest census. However, the board of supervisors is all white.)
“It’s an opportunity for everyone, not just people of color who live this every day, to have uncomfortable conversations. We have the opportunity to right the wrongs of history, to state the facts and allow people to learn from them.”
Williams grew up in Charlotte County and remembers being struck by the same symbols and lack of Black decision-makers. She returned there in 2018 to teach special education and give back to the community that formed her and her ideas about the world. She now lives in the Hampton Roads area, having expanded her education in school psychology at the College of William & Mary. She works at the college in the dean’s office supporting academic well-being and is involved in social justice efforts there. She’s still involved locally, though, and returns almost every weekend to stay involved and visit family.
It was at her request that the board considered contextualizing the monument. She said she’s still coming to terms with it and feels that it’s not right for a symbol of oppression to be so prominent, especially since that prominence speaks to people as an implicit sign of who does and doesn’t belong.
“But if it must stay, it needs context,” she said. “It shows the next generation that we all have space here and a connection to what happened in the past.”
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Cora St. John was born in Charlotte County and has spent the whole of her 72 years there. She’s active in local organizations, having chartered the South Central Virginia VA Genealogical Society, directing the APVA in Charlotte, having chaired the efforts to create the “Heritage of Charlotte County” books, and is active in the local museum, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and Civil War remembrance groups — just to name a few of her activities.
She said she’s very happy with the outcome of the sign and, “I think this was an opportunity to help educate people about this time in our history. It was a time very different from today. To have removed the monument would have taken away that opportunity.”
For her, this group was an opportunity to sit down and talk with others in her community, and to provide her knowledge of local history and genealogy for others’ benefit. She hopes others will “sit down, talk and listen” after reading both viewpoints.
“I hope … everyone realize[s] that even though people may disagree, they can still understand,” she said.
The monument has been in question locally since 2020, when a resident sent a letter to the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors asking that the monument be removed. The subject was tabled at the time but later was revived at the request of another citizen.
A roundtable, which Williams and St. John participated in, was then formed to consider the issue. In May 2022, it recommended to the board that the monument be moved to a less prominent location, 100 feet to the rear of the courthouse green. That relocation would have cost approximately $60,000 and was rejected by a vote of 5-2, primarily due to cost. It was then that the effort to contextualize the monument began.
The sign received final approval from the board in June 2023.
The 30-inch-by-54-inch table sign looks like those at National Park sites, and “presents both perspectives in an objective, factual manner, allowing the reader to decide for themselves how they view it,” said Liston. Along with their text, it includes quotes and images to “tell the story of how the monument came to be, paid for with monies raised by Confederate women and veterans and the local government, while also placing it in the context of post-Reconstruction Virginia and the erosion of hard-won Black civil rights. Erected during the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901-1902, the links to that event are explored. The 1902 Virginia constitution effectively disenfranchised almost all Black voters and many poor Whites in the Commonwealth.”
Though the national discussion on Confederate monuments predates 2020, efforts to remove them increased substantially after the murder of George Floyd that year. The nearby town of Farmville removed its statue from public land in 2020, citing public safety concerns, according to a story in The Farmville Herald at the time. Farmville stored the monument with intent to rehome it at a less politically charged time.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, which keeps a running total of Confederate monuments moved or under consideration, at least 26 have been removed in Virginia since 2020. More are under consideration.
The monuments in Richmond have gained widespread attention. As the former seat of the Confederacy, the city was dotted with large-scale statues idolizing Confederate figures.
But in December, the last of the city’s dozen public Confederate statues on display — a memorial to Confederate Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill — was removed.
Monuments like these were protected by law until March 8, 2020, when the Virginia legislature “passed measures that would undo an existing state law that protects the monuments and instead let local governments decide their fate.” Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law that April and it went into effect July 1. Now, local governments can remove monuments, move them or — as in Charlotte County — add context.
This reckoning of the South’s pro-slavery past is still going on throughout Virginia, but Liston hopes this sign can act as a beacon for conversation and reconciliation.
“This sign, believed to be the first in Virginia, will place the monument in the context of the time in which it was erected,” she said.
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The event this Saturday is open to the public and will feature Julie Langan, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and State Historic Preservation Officer, as the keynote speaker.
Charlotte may be off the beaten path, but so much happened there, according to Langan, who added that visitors to the courthouse can see the real effects of historical events on Charlotte residents throughout time.
It’s “like a living, outdoor museum”: Along with the new sign, a recent highway marker was erected by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources commemorating the life of Joseph Holmes, an important Black politician during the Reconstruction era who was lynched there. The space includes markers that relate Patrick Henry’s involvement there, information on the area’s Civil War history, a Constitutional Oak that, like the Confederate monument, was placed there in relation to Virginia’s constitutional convention of 1902, which disenfranchised most of Virginia’s Black voters, and information on the courthouse itself, which is the last standing courthouse designed by Thomas Jefferson. The entire historic district is distinct and has its own signage, as well.
A historian from her office reviewed the language at the group’s request and found it accurate and well-reported.
The office is actually in the process of drafting regulations for how monuments like this should be contextualized now, and she said Charlotte County’s “courageous step forward” fits within their guidelines. This step also proves that Charlotte County continues to make history, said Langan.
“I commend the county for doing this the right way,” she said. “A lot of communities are kicking the can. They approached the issue in a thoughtful way, didn’t rush it, and are presenting diverse points of view.”
Updated, Sept. 16. Here’s the sign that was added: