LYNCHBURG — The topic of whether to remove a Confederate monument from the Nelson County Courthouse grounds has drawn heavy discussion and differing viewpoints among the county’s Board of Supervisors.
The statue of a Confederate soldier on the front lawn of the Lovingston courthouse has wording that says it was erected in April 1965 “in memory of the heroic Confederate soldiers of Nelson County” who served in the Civil War. While some residents have publicly supported letting the statue remain as a reminder of a war with deep familial ties across generations, others have described it an outdated symbol of oppression and racism.
The Rev. James Rose, a Black pastor of a Shipman congregation, has called the statue “a reminder of the old South” and last year publicly called for its removal. The debate was front and center during the board’s Aug. 10 meeting when board Chairman Ernie Reed said he felt discussion was needed about considering other sites where the statue could go.
“My intention is not to decide if the statue should be removed; my intention is to determine if it’s an appropriate place for a monument adjacent to a court of law,” Reed said. “What that monument represents to each of us and to people, I think, is going to be very personal. But what it represents to a court of law is that it commemorates a basic injustice to the people … and it also celebrates a war that was fought to dismantle the United States of America.”
Reed cited Roanoke County Circuit Judge Charles Dorsey’s July 8 order stating a similar statue of a Confederate infantryman at Roanoke County’s courthouse should be removed.
“Any inconvenience in accomplishing this goal is small compared to the rights involved in the administration of justice,” Dorsey’s order said.
While offering a directive to county staff to assess appropriate locations for the monument that “honors its history but in a way that does not in any way jeopardize the equal protection and equality of people under the law,” Reed suggested reaching out to the community for feedback on places it could go.
“I have a directive that we don’t do a thing,” Supervisor Thomas D. Harvey said. “It’s wasting staff time and county money to do anything other than that.”
Harvey, who said he opposes removing the statue from the courthouse property, suggested possibly putting the matter on the ballot as a referendum. No formal direction was given to county staff on any measure regarding the statue during the Aug. 10 discussion.
Roanoke College has offered to fund relocation of the Roanoke County statue to an old courthouse site used by the college adjacent to the current one, according to a July 19 article in The Roanoke Times. Reed said many parties and institutions have stepped up across the state to accept Confederate monuments relocated from government properties and he believes Nelson will have similar feedback.
Supervisor Jesse Rutherford said the subject is highly delicate and points to a deeper discussion on race the Nelson community needs to engage in. He said the statue stirs a wide range of emotions among residents with many families having relatives who died in the war, also noting the negative thoughts on defense of slavery others feel.
Rutherford said his father’s side of the family has ancestors who fought in the Union and his mother’s side has ancestral ties to the Confederacy.
“I’m concerned of how we can have this conversation and make it healthy and something we can build on … I don’t think this topic should be as simple as leaving it up or tearing it down,” Rutherford said. “It’s a community decision. I believe a rash decision by this board taking it down would not give us good results. I would be concerned of a rebuttal from the community. We also don’t need to be the interpreters of history.”
Supervisor Robert “Skip” Barton said the Civil War’s root cause was slavery, which he said was based on the lie of one race’s superiority over another. He added that such lies often lead to many of the problems Americans face today.
“That statue to me represents tragedy,” Barton said.
The statue was installed during an era of segregation, which Barton said also was a lie based on racism. He said he supports adding to the statue’s inscription language that is more unifying.
“We have to say goodbye to that tragedy, as a nation, as a people. We have to move on,” Barton said. “I would like something there that would bring us together. Leaving that statue there is no answer to our problem.”
Rutherford said he’s hesitant to move the statue but is open to the idea of adding to it and celebrating “those who got liberated” from slavery. “That would be a huge thing to do,” he said.
Supervisor David Parr said the monument was put up 100 years after the Civil War’s conclusion as a way to replace a cemetery of Confederate soldiers on a Shipman resident’s land that became overgrown, inaccessible and too expensive to maintain. He said the statue is one of several war memorials on the courthouse grounds and does not pay tribute to a Confederate general or “glory days” gone by.
“It is our somber memorial to honor our local residents, both white and Black, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this county we all hold dear, and our love for Nelson County should be what unifies us and not what divides us,” Parr said.
He said local government decisions should “not be based on volume, it should be based on mass” in reflecting the county’s collective desire.
“My opinion is irrelevant. I was elected to represent the people of the West District of Nelson County and not the household of David Parr,” he said.
Parr also told Reed: “Let’s no longer say you don’t want the memorial moved … it can’t go somewhere if it’s not moved.” Reed said he appreciated Parr’s comments but not his interpretation of Reed’s intent.
“Well, I don’t appreciate your interpretation of what the memorial stands for to begin with,” Parr told Reed. “That’s the basis for this conversation.”
Reed said the topic brings “a general amount of discomfort” but he feels it’s the board’s responsibility to make difficult decisions. He added he invites more pubic feedback on the matter.
“If there are ideas of appropriate and honorable locations, I would love to hear those ideas and I’ll know we’ll be discussing this further,” Reed said.
Barton said he feels the board has a chance to make a statement for the county.
“This doesn’t have to be emotional. It can be rational,” Barton said. “It’s something that needs to be talked about, which is good.”
Rutherford added: “This is a community discussion.”