Of all the reckoning with lost cause icons that have gripped Virginia over the past two years — from Charlottesville deciding to melt down Robert E. Lee to Richmond loaning other bronze generals to a museum in California — it is a new twist, a sign of the enduring power of the Civil War legacy.
State Department of Historic Resources officials said they are not aware of any other locations in Virginia exploring such a step. Opponents say giving control of a public site to a private heritage group sets an alarming precedent.
“The long-term implications are really significant, because this group could do whatever they wanted with this land,” said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “The government would lose all control despite being right in the middle of the historic courthouse square.”
The group of attorneys signed a letter to the county last week warning of possible legal action on behalf of the local NAACP chapter. Transferring the land to a pro-Confederate group sends “indisputable messages that the Mathews County Board of Supervisors endorses white supremacy and supports second-class status for black people,” the attorneys wrote.
The letter ratcheted up the heat on an idea that had been swirling around Mathews for months. Turnout is expected to be strong for a public hearing on Wednesday evening on the general topic of the transfer of public assets to private groups. The hearing was originally scheduled to specifically address the statue, but board members last month – in the face of heated public debate – decided to slow down the process.
“Let me tell you something, the NAACP jumped on this thing,” County Supervisor Dave Jones said in an interview last week. There will be no vote Wednesday on what to do with the statue, he said.
But not everyone is convinced.
“We don’t know what action they might take,” said NAACP chapter president Edith Turner.
Confusion has settled since last fall’s referendum, in a county of some 8,600 people, about 8% of whom are black. Even though the message from voters was clear, and despite the statue not being the target of graffiti or other protest damage, some residents and county supervisors waged a crusade to save it from future calamity. .
One day last week, Jones stood outside the old courthouse and said he would “never vote to move the monument from its place”, although that was not a problem.
He denied that Wednesday’s hearing was even related to the statue, and said the flap over giving the site to conservatives was over the top. He promised he “will not vote to transfer this monument to the SCV” or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the two groups that erected it in 1912 and have offered to take it back this year.
But a few minutes later, Jones and Mathews County Board of Supervisors Chairman Paul Hudgins – who had joined him in the shade under a willow oak tree – was a little vaguer. Would they transfer ownership to another group that could protect it where it is?
“We can give ownership to anything, there’s no law against it,” Jones said.
“That’s a conversation to have at a later date,” Hudgins said.
“It’s true,” Jones said.
Turner, the president of the NAACP, is black and a teacher who was born and raised in Mathews County. She gives her age as “over 60” and says she was around fourth grade when the local schools were integrated. She attended Lee-Jackson Elementary School, named after Confederate generals.
Two years ago, Turner was proud when her daughter launched an effort to rename the school. It is now known as Mathews Elementary. In response, someone placed a giant Confederate flag on private property across the street.
Confederate battle flags flutter along the road along several entrances to Mathews County, a fact that Turner said discourages friends and family who might want to visit. “But I feel good here because I’m from here,” she says.
Renaming the school, however, was an unwelcome taste of change for some Mathews residents who watched in horror as statues fall in other parts of the state.
Ben Richardson, 61, grew up in Mathews on property that has been in his family since the 1700s. Like many in this countryside of swamps and creeks along the Chesapeake Bay, he has spent most of his life on water, on tugs and tankers.
He had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, he said, and for the Confederacy. The statue isn’t racism, it’s just history, he said. And the groups that erected it should own and protect it.
“People just want to open a Pandora’s box,” Richardson said, sitting outside his art shop Pudding Creek Carvings in a “Good Vibes” t-shirt. “I think the statue should stay where it is…and the land, which should be handed over to them.”
The statue itself is the figure of a generic Civil War soldier on top of a column. The base reads “Our Confederate Soldiers” on one side, and “In memory of the Soldiers and Sailors of Mathews County Va.” on another.
It sits about 15 feet from the corner of the old courthouse, which anchors a plaza with historic buildings, including a jail and clerk’s office.
Several local residents said they rarely paid much attention to the statue until 2017, after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when people supporting Confederate heritage began showing up around the statue. to show their support.
After 2020, when the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police sparked a national movement for racial justice, Confederate supporters festooned the ground around the base of the statue with small Confederate battle flags.
Some in the county objected and the Board of Supervisors warned that the flags could not be placed in the ground as it was public property.
For a time, however, the statue itself was considered to belong to the SCV and the UDC. Many Confederate statues in the state were placed about a century ago by these heritage groups, and a handful still belong to them despite being located on public property.
In Alexandria, for example, a Confederate statue was taken down at the request of the UDC and returned to the group for safekeeping.
According to research compiled by Mathews Public Library staff, the county memorial was run by a group called the Mathews County Monument Association made up of seven UDC and seven SCV members, who raised funds to the public to finance it.
But those two locals died out or disbanded a long time ago, the research showed. Today’s groups have been reconstituted in recent years and research has found no evidence that the statue was ever passed on to them.
At last month’s board of supervisors meeting, a UDC representative submitted a letter that appeared to acknowledge county ownership.
Neither the UDC nor SCV members could be reached for comment on this story. But two supporters spoke out forcefully at the August meeting.
Bobby Dobson, who is a county school board member, blamed former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, for stirring up trouble over monuments and said the fact that a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis being displayed vandalized and subject to the Valentine Museum in Richmond is “A disgrace.”
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“Now everyone seems to want to take down” statues, Dobson said. Noting that the county’s referendum in favor of the monument was not binding, he said the Mathews statue needed permanent protection. “God bless the fallen Southerners,” he concluded, “and God bless Robert E. Lee.”
Joey Taylor, president of the local SCV, said his group wanted to take ownership of the monument because “we think if it’s not done, these left-wing people will do their best to tear it down because it’s is what they want.”
Neither Dobson nor Taylor could be reached for comment.
Mathews County Administrator Ramona Wilson, who took office in April when the controversy was already in full swing, said in an interview that she remains uncertain about the status of the statue itself. “We don’t know who owns it at this point,” she said.
The next step will depend on the public hearing on Wednesday evening. If residents fully support the transfer of public ownership to private interests, she said, the council will hold a hearing on the disposal of the land under the statue.
If the public opposes the concept, she says, “I think then it’s going to go away.”
But Jones and Hudgins, the board members, have made it clear that the statue itself is not going anywhere.
The county will install video surveillance, Hudgins said.
“If they want to come and try to tear it down, they have to come through us, and we’ll take all the action,” Jones said.
“It’s not Richmond,” Hudgins said, “I can tell you that.”
Jones agreed. “It’s not Richmond.”