WINCHESTER — A Change.org petition with more than 2,500 signatures is calling for the removal of a Confederate soldier statue on the Loudoun Street Mall, but the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation says the statue will stay where it is.
Erected in November 1916, the statue is of an unnamed Confederate soldier. It is dedicated to soldiers from Winchester and Frederick County who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, according to an inscription.
“It is time to remove the Confederate Soldier statue from the Winchester walking mall and place it where its history can be preserved: in a museum,” states the petition, started by local resident Elizabeth Albert on Tuesday and directed at the Frederick County Board of Supervisors. “Its presence in a public place is disturbing to many and off-putting to visitors, which can affect tourism and local business. To preserve history, we suggest placing the statue in either the Civil War Museum or the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, where it can be contextualized. It's time to making the walking mall and Winchester a place that's welcoming to ALL visitors.”
Numerous Confederate monuments have been taken down or removed in recent years because many people view them as glorifying slavery, white supremacy and a treasonous government associated with the Confederacy. Calls to remove these types of monuments have been renewed in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while be restrained by a white police officer on May 25 in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death has sparked nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality. A makeshift memorial to Floyd currently lies at the base of the Confederate statue in downtown Winchester.
Last year, the Board of Supervisors voted 5-1 to convey the county’s property at 20 N. Loudoun St. — which contains the former Frederick County Courthouse (now the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum) and the Confederate statue — to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation for 200 years. Stonewall Supervisor Judith McCann-Slaughter abstained from voting. Red Bud District Supervisor Blaine Dunn voted against the conveyance because he wanted more time for public input on the matter.
The agreement says the property is to be used for the preservation of local history and the operation of a museum. If the foundation ceases to use the property for this purpose, fails to maintain the layout of the historic courtroom and fails to maintain the historic structure of the building, the property and all improvements made to the property will revert back to the county’s ownership. The agreement also says the foundation may not remove or alter the Confederate statue in front of the old courthouse, or the same conditions will apply.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Charles DeHaven Jr. said on Wednesday that he wouldn’t object to the statue being moved inside the courthouse or to another location, such as a battlefield, but he added that “it’s a discussion for the battlefield foundation’s board to have.”
County Attorney Roderick Williams said because of the 200-year deed, any requests to move the Confederate statue need to start with the foundation, not the county government.
“Legally, for the next 200 years the county does not have any authority under property law to remove it because the property has been deeded for 200 years to the foundation,” Williams said on Wednesday. “So I think if someone wants to remove it, the party with the current interest in removing it would have to be the foundation. And if the foundation feels at some point that that is what they want to do, it would seem that they would then come to the county and say, ‘Look, we’d like to do something different here. Can we modify the deed to do so?’ Then obviously the burden would fall on the county and the Board of Supervisors to figure out what to do. But I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it at this point. It’s technically, for the next 200 years, not our thing.”
Keven Walker, CEO of the foundation, which manages the eight-county Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, told The Star on Wednesday that the foundation intends to keep the statue in place. He said the foundation stands behind its monuments policy, which says it is “opposed to the wholesale eradication or removal of plaques, statues, monuments, place names and other public honors associated with the history and heritage of the United states.” The foundation also supports laws that forbid state or local governments from removing, damaging or altering monuments and believes that monuments should remain located where they were originally placed.
“We believe that those monuments represent the historic landscape in their own right,” Walker said. “With that said, we want to be responsible and respectful members of our community … And we are in deep and very honest and open discussions with people who are of all frames of mind when it comes to Confederate iconography, including monuments. We are doing a lot of listening right now. And we hope to be able to strike a balance moving forward.”
Walker said the foundation believes that there are currently not enough symbols in the area to recognize the achievements of African Americans or women and that the foundation hopes to rectify that. He also said he would like to see more non-Confederate monuments on the foundation’s property as well as other properties “that reflect more of a totality, a more holistic story of what our history has to tell.” Earlier this year, the foundation tried, but failed, to obtain state funds to build a Shenandoah Valley African American History Center in New Market. The project came under fire over concerns that it didn't have input from African Americans. Walker said the intent was to solicit input before construction started on the project. He previously told The Star that the foundation still hopes to do the project one day.
“We are being open-minded," Walker said. "And we are concerned. Concerned for our country. We are concerned for our local communities. We are saddened by the things taking place in Minneapolis and all over the country. And we do believe that there is a lot of room for improvement in the areas of social justice in the United States. And we want to be a part of moving in a better direction. We don’t believe tearing down Confederate monuments does that. People think that’s divisive and that it does not bring everybody to the table.”
I’m Just Me Movement co-founder Christine “Tina” Stevens, who in November became the first African-American woman elected to Stephens City Town Council, said she would like the community to have a conversation about Confederate monuments and systemic racism. She would like the conversation to explore why Confederate monuments bring so much anger, hurt and pain for some people and why others wish to keep the monuments standing. She said a public forum in which people are able to discuss their feelings on the matter may be an ideal scenario.
"People that are 40-years old, white male, may not be threatened at all by this statue,” Stevens said. “They walk by it every day and it won’t mean anything to them at all, they won’t have a second thought about it. Then you have black people that it invokes feelings of anger. But as a community we have to have these conversations because even if we remove the monuments, we still have the anger that is transferred and not used for constructive building, positive conversations and dialogue. I won’t say that we need to tear it down and I won’t say that we need to keep it. What I will say is that as a community we have to have a conversation about this. Because it’s not all about the monument.”
Williams said the county has no control over the statue until the terms of the 200-year deed have expired.
“Of course, none of us will be here to see that,” Williams said.
For more information about the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, visit www.shenandoahatwar.org or contact 540-740-4545.