Certain thin-skinned folks are outraged at Senator Harry Byrd Jr.’s name coming off a Shenandoah University building. Yet even these ardent defenders can’t deny his segregationist record, the removal’s cause. They just keep reminding us that about the nice, old rich man who gave away money, and who (if rather ineffectually) once held office.
Do these people really not know that erasing history is So Very Winchester? Far more significant figures, far more honored in their day, have long vanished from public view here — in particular, those that preceded Harry Byrd Jr. to the U.S. Senate from Winchester, James Murray Mason (1847-1861), and the Senator’s father, Harry Byrd Sr. (1933-1965).
No Black activists erased this history, and nor did any fierce Antifa outsiders. The two men were just politely “disappeared” by the inaction and tacit messages of civic leaders.
The most absurd indication is the “historical” marker at the site of Harry Byrd Sr.’s childhood home. It mentions Admiral Richard Byrd’s childhood there, but omits brother Harry, later a Governor and a Senator. Did young Harry sleep in the backyard with the dog?
Admiral Byrd, some suggest as a surrogate, gets a statue here. His career peaked at the South Pole, as far from Winchester as possible. Harry Sr., without even mentioning public offices, lived his whole life near his boyhood home, was a major businessperson here, and was a hometown activist, especially with the Apple Blossom Festival. But his only hometown public notice is on his grave.
As for Mason, he has no marker or mention here. Most Winchester residents have never heard of him, though, right here in our city, he was a major champion of the slavery and secession cause that devastated the nation.
Unable to face shameful history, our local leaders have stifled it. Though highly honored in life, the disgraceful racist acts of these two men and, of course, the defeats of their causes, indelibly tainted them. Why would Harry Byrd Jr. be different?
Senator Mason’s Fugitive Slave Law created the tyrannical Homeland Security Agency of his day. It increased North-South tensions, and directly inspired the most effective political novel in our history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As for Senator Harry Byrd Sr., his great public disgrace, Massive Resistance, created radical unconstitutional laws to keep schools segregated and to intimidate the NAACP and others who supported the law of the land. His son was part of the poorly thought out and short-lived project.
These men don’t deserve statues. But, as we are so often reminded, we should not erase history. A simple plaque at the Old Courthouse, describing their racist abuses and motives, would help us to remember the lessons of our community’s past. Byrd Sr. and Mason did business in that building, though the current Museum effort there, of course, ignores both.
Only a snowflake complains when an embarrassing minor figure’s name is erased. Especially in a city that serenely erases major history-making figures for decades, rather than face racism’s central role here.
Larry Yates is a resident of Winchester.