RICHMOND — An omnibus bill seeking to put control of war monuments into the hands of localities was approved by a Virginia Senate committee on a party-line vote Monday.
SB 620 from Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and SB 560 from Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, were incorporated into SB 183, which was introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.
Current state law prevents local governments from removing or modifying war memorials. The issue has only intensified since the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, which was ostensibly prompted by the Charlottesville City Council’s efforts to remove a downtown statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Prior attempts by Charlottesville-area legislators to change the state code were thwarted by a Republican majority. However, with a shift in the majority and support from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, supporters are hopeful the legislation will pass this session.
During a Monday meeting of the Senate Committee on Local Government, the trifecta bill was amended to require the Department of Historic Resources to prepare a report on whom the monument represents, the circumstances around its erection and whether it is a historic landmark. Initially, 180 days was given to draft this report but that was amended to 30 days during the hearing.
The bill lays out a process for local governments to follow when they want to remove a monument, including a timeline and opportunities for a museum or other entities to request to take the monument.
Prior to the vote, several members of the Charlottesville community spoke in favor of legislation giving local control of war monuments and memorials to localities.
Kristin Szakos, a former Charlottesville city councilor who voted in 2016 to remove the Lee statue, talked about threats directed at her and others following the vote.
“No parent should have to, as we did, see a hate group website with a picture of your house with directions and know that your children are inside,” she said. “In 2016, we voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue, and had we been allowed to remove it, I think the threats would have stopped; instead, they escalated.”
On behalf of the city of Charlottesville, Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson also urged the committee to pass local control legislation.
“There are a wide variety of circumstances throughout the commonwealth of Virginia, and ultimately these decisions, just like local real estate decisions and historical resource decisions, have traditionally been left to localities at the local level through their political processes,” she said.
Robertson also requested an exemption from a state historic resources review for communities like Charlottesville that already have those facts “very well documented.”
Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor who regularly leads historic tours of the downtown Confederate statues, echoed similar sentiments as Szakos and Robertson.
“As I walked into the Capitol today, I noticed a Thomas Jefferson quote, ‘Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,’” Schmidt said. “We are well-informed, trust us.”
Several people, mostly from pro-Confederate groups, spoke against the proposed legislation.
Andrew Morehead, representing the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, drew attention to language in the bill that would allow localities to remove any war monument, not just Confederate ones. This could lead to a “slippery slope” that allows other war monuments to be removed, he said.
“What we have in the current movement is low-hanging fruit where everything Confederate is evil,” he said. “It will then move on to the Founders. Mr. Jefferson, for you folks from Charlottesville, will be removed. It will then ultimately move on to Vietnam, which was not a very popular war.”
Just before the vote, Locke spoke of her own experiences with the Confederacy and the Lost Cause narrative, which she said led her to abandon a career as an archivist.
“I quit that job because I did not want to relive the Civil War either at that institution or the institution prior,” she said. “I gave up being an archivist for the United States because I did not want to continue to relive the Lost Cause.”
A Charlottesville Circuit Court judge last month ordered the city to pay $365,000 for plaintiffs’ legal fees after Charlottesville lost a lawsuit that opponents of removal brought against the city.
A spokesman for the plaintiffs in that case, Charlottesville-based lawyer Charles Weber, said in a recent statement that the plaintiffs oppose granting local control and fear changing the law could lead to the removal of memorials to Vietnam War veterans.
“Stripping these war memorials from the public square will not improve race relations or the lives of anyone in the community,” he said. “Instead, doing so will simply break faith with military veterans everywhere and alienate many Virginians who understand our history and work constructively to promote justice in our communities.”
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, condemned the violence that arose in Charlottesville, and said she prefers erecting new monuments to removing old ones.
“I think correcting that narrative is better than destroying it. I think we’re better than that,” she said. “And I’m going to say to localities: The reason that people came to Charlottesville is because a decision was made, not because a monument was there.”
Lisa Draine, the mother of a University of Virginia student who was injured in the vehicle attack on the day of the Unite the Right rally, fought back tears Monday as she described the injuries her daughter suffered.
“These statues are not benign. They are magnets for hate and violence,” she said. “I’m asking you to stand up to people who say this is about heritage and legacy. I’m asking you to think about your legacy and to protect children in the future.”
The bill passed on a party-line vote of 7-8 and will now head to the full Senate for a floor vote.
A companion bill for Deeds’ bill, HB 1625 from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, is currently assigned to the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee. That committee meets at 9 a.m. Friday but has yet to release this week’s agenda.