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Virginia lawmakers approve local control of Confederate monuments; must still decide on rules

RICHMOND — Following emotional speeches on the Senate floor, the Virginia legislature on Wednesday approved legislation allowing local governments to decide the fate of Confederate monuments in their localities.

The votes in the Senate and the House of Delegates set up a negotiation between the chambers over just how much work localities would have to do before deciding whether or not to retain the Confederate symbols.

“They were erected as symbols of hatred. They were erected as symbols of Jim Crow,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton.

Locke was responding to a defense of such monuments from Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, when she became too emotional to continue speaking. “I can’t do this,” Locke said as she sat down.

Kiggans and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, the first Republican candidate to announce a run for governor in 2021, made the case that the monuments should be learned from and not torn down.

“Symbols are just that — they are symbols — and what may mean hurt and pain to one person can mean that is someone else’s grandfather or grandmother or family member,” said Chase. “(Slavery) was evil, but it doesn’t mean that we take all of these monuments down. We remember our past and we learn from it — we don’t erase it.”

The Republican Party’s nominee in 2017, Ed Gillespie, also supported keeping the statues up.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who is also considering a run for the executive mansion, argued that “the decision about what to do with those monuments — whether to put them in context, whether to move them, whether to take them down — should be in the communities where those monuments are.”

“If Virginia is ever going to heal from the trauma that occurred beginning 400 years ago, if we’re ever going to heal, like any family, we have to talk about that trauma — how it affected everyone; how it continues to affect everyone; how it continues to fester until it blows up in Charlottesville,” McClellan said. She was referencing the deadly 2017 white nationalist rally, spurred in part by the City Council’s vote to remove the city’s Robert E. Lee statue.

The Senate conformed House Bill 1537 from Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to the Senate version of the bill — sponsored by Locke — that it passed last month. The Senate approved the bill on a 21-17 vote. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, and Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, didn’t vote.

The bill now includes the Senate’s proposed requirements local governments would have to meet before they could remove statues.

First, the locality would have to pass a resolution saying it intends to remove, relocate, “contextualize,” cover or alter a monument. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources would then prepare a report within 90 days — with the locality paying for the study — that outlines who the monument honors, “the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the monument or memorial, and whether the monument or memorial qualifies for placement on the Virginia Landmarks Register or the National Register of Historic Places.”

Once the report is finished, the local government would have to hold a public hearing and then vote on the proposal, with two-thirds support needed in order to move forward with action “to remove, relocate, contextualize, cover or alter” a monument.

The House’s preferred version of the bill doesn’t include those rules. The House on Wednesday passed Locke’s Senate Bill 183 on a 51-46 vote after conforming it to the House’s version it passed Feb. 11.

Virginia’s 110 Confederate monuments, many erected decades after the Civil War, are the second-most of any state, trailing only Georgia’s 114, according to a 2019 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Those monuments and statues were not erected to talk about the reality of history,” Locke said before invoking the chamber’s other African American members and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who presides as president of the Senate.

“They were erected to say to me, to Jennifer McClellan, to Lionel Spruill, to Louise Lucas, to you, Mr. President [Fairfax], that your lives don’t really matter.”

The five on Richmond’s Monument Avenue — raised between 1890 and 1929 — have been some of the most controversial in the state. Four of the five are on city property, while a statue honoring Lee is on state property and would not be subject to local control.

The Richmond City Council voted earlier this year to ask the state for authority to decide the fate of its Confederate iconography. In 2018 a commission appointed by Mayor Levar Stoney recommended removal of the statue honoring Confederate President Jefferson Davis and adding signs to the other statues.

The House and Senate still must name negotiators to sort out the bills’ differences in time for legislators to vote by Saturday’s scheduled adjournment.


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