RICHMOND — Days after an omnibus bill seeking to put control of war monuments into the hands of localities was approved by a Virginia Senate committee, a House version created in part by a Charlottesville legislator likewise advanced.
HB 1625, introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, which seeks to change a section of state code, has been incorporated into HB 1537, from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. The duo bill was then passed Friday in the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee by a 12-10, near-party line vote, with only Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, breaking from the pack.
“If there had been a balance to history — contextually and in structure — about the authentic history of the commonwealth, then I do not think we would be at this place in Virginia,” McQuinn said before the vote. “Unfortunately, those who have opposed local authority as it relates to the monuments have not suggested any way or anything else to bring balance to a very painful and shameful history in Virginia and America.”
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 prompted by the Charlottesville City Council’s efforts to remove a downtown statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The vote marks a significant step forward for Charlottesville and other localities that have fought to change the state code in recent years.
At least two prior attempts by Charlottesville-area legislators to change the law were thwarted in subcommittee hearings by a Republican majority. However, with a shift in the majority and support from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, the legislation has made it further than in years past.
More than two dozen Charlottesville-area residents attended the committee meeting Friday, silently holding signs that read “Local Control.”
Among those who spoke in favor of the legislation was Wes Bellamy, a former Charlottesville city councilor who helped to write the initial proposal to remove the Lee statue, as then-Charlottesville High School student Zyahna Bryant petitioned for its removal.
Ever since, Bellamy said he has received “consistent and regular” threats against not only his own life, but also on the lives of his wife and children, as well.
“I’m hoping that you will have the courage to be able to stand up, if not myself or the people in the room, then for my family, your nieces and granddaughters and so forth,” Bellamy said. “We need to be able to decide what it is we need to do. We’re not asking to change the world; we’re just looking to change our communities.”
Rita Davis, who spoke on behalf of Northam, had a similar message.
“This legislation does not require localities to do anything with war memorials. Rather, it simply allows localities the authority to make decisions about all of its locally erected war memorials,” she said. “Each community should have the freedom to determine which parts of our shared history, if any, to honor and preserve through public art.”
Representatives for the governments of Charlottesville, Alexandria, Richmond and Loudoun County all urged the delegates to advance the legislation.
Unlike at a state Senate committee meeting Monday, relatively few people spoke against the House bill Friday.
Andrew Morehead, a representative for the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, touched on many of the same points as he had during the Monday hearing, arguing that the bill was a slippery slope that would lead to the removal of non-Confederate war memorials.
Morehead’s speech was cut short after the committee’s chairwoman, Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, took issue with some of his claims that “any private citizen with a pickup truck and a chain” could remove the monuments.
“Have you read the bill before us?” she asked him. “Perhaps the patron can speak to the intention.”
Speaking on his own behalf, Frank Earnest, a member of the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he expects local control to be passed, though he doesn’t agree with it.
“We don’t feel the same way we did 100, 200 or even 50 years ago, and thank God we don’t — it’s called progress,” he said. “And memorials are markers along the way to that progress. It is unprecedented in a civilized nation to take down these memorials from the past.”
Earnest was involved with a recent lawsuit against the Charlottesville City Council and the city over votes to remove the Lee statue, as well as a statue of fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs. Recently, a Charlottesville circuit judge ordered the city to pay the plaintiffs approximately $365,000 in compensatory attorneys fees.
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 that 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.”
Unlike the House bill’s senatorial equivalent, all of the proposed amendments to HB 1537 were cast aside on a voice vote.
One of those amendments sought to require the Virginia 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 — something Charlottesville speakers and Hudson argue the city already has done.
“The city of Charlottesville has already gone through extensive discussion very much in line with all of the proposals heard from those with concerns with local control,” Hudson said. “I think that is a great affirmation that we can trust our communities to make these decisions with all of the appropriate considerations.”
HB 1537 is now headed for three readings on the House floor. If it passes those readings, it will cross over to the Senate next week.
The Senate bill has been tweaked on the floor but has not been voted on yet.