WINCHESTER — The Virginia Department of Historic Resources disagrees with a claim by Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation CEO Keven Walker that a 2001 easement prevents the foundation from moving a Confederate soldier statue in downtown Winchester.
Last year, property that includes the 1916 Confederate statue and the historic Frederick County courthouse, which now houses the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum, was deeded by Frederick County to the New Market-based foundation for 200 years. The agreement says the property must be used for the preservation of local history and the operation of a museum. It also says the Confederate statue may not be altered or removed. Failure to comply with the agreement would result in the property reverting back to the county.
In June, an online petition was started to remove the Confederate statue, with many of the 5,200 people who have signed it saying its presence symbolizes racial oppression and honors the Confederacy’s attempts to preserve slavery.
The situation is not unique. Confederate monuments across the country have come under increased scrutiny in recent months in the wake of racial unrest following the police killing of a Black man in Minneapolis by a white police officer on May 25.
Frederick County Attorney Roderick Williams told The Star last month that if the foundation wants to move the statue, it would have to negotiate with the county’s Board of Supervisors about modifying the deed. The foundation, which operates the museum, has concerns about renegotiating the deed with the county, so it doesn't consider that an option, Walker told The Star in June.
But the deed isn't the only hurdle prohibiting the statue's removal, Walker added. Even if the foundation wanted to move the statue, which it doesn't, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) has an 2001 easement on the property that prevents its relocation, he said.
DHR officials say that's incorrect.
“I believe there is an impediment to removal, but I don’t think it’s the Deed of Easement,” DHR Director/State Historic Preservation Officer Julie Langan said Wednesday. “I think it’s the Deed of Trust [from Frederick County to the foundation]. And so, from my perspective, this is more of a local issue than it is a Commonwealth issue. The easement, which was recorded in 2001 ... is much less restrictive than the Deed of Trust. It was written at a time when that’s how we wrote easements. It’s typical of its time. If we were to write an easement today, we would probably be more explicit about how the monument would be handled. But because it’s not even mentioned, it’s highly unlikely that we would deny a request for its removal. That said, we haven’t gotten a request. And I don’t expect that we will get a request.”
According to the easement, photographs were taken in January 2001 to document the appearance and condition of the easement property, which includes the courthouse and Confederate statue. It states that the property, including the exterior and interior of the courthouse, “shall be maintained and preserved in its documented state as nearly as practicable, except for changes which are expressly permitted hereunder.”
The easement also says that the courthouse can't be demolished or removed from the property, or its exterior or interior be altered, restored, renovated or extended except in a way that would be consistent with the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic properties. Additionally, "no other permitted structure shall be constructed, altered, restored, renovated, or extended except in a way that would, in the opinion of the [Department of historic Resources] be in keeping with the historic and architectural character of the Easement Property, and provided the prior written approval of the [DHR] to such actions shall have been obtained.”
While the easement makes no reference to the statue, Walker believes the statue is protected from removal because the easement protects the property itself and says it should be maintained the way it was documented in 2001.
Walker told The Star that DHR officials reached out to him last month to say that they don’t believe the easement protects the monument.
“We immediately reached back out to them and said, ‘Actually, you are wrong,’” Walker said. “The monument is protected. It is protected in the easement very clearly. The easement lists the courthouse itself specifically and expressly. But then it says that the courtyard will be maintained in the condition that it is at the time of the recording of the easement and as recorded in the photographs taken and filed at a certain office in the state. Those photographs and that statement clearly protects the courtyard in front of the courthouse, including the flagpoles, the monument. There’s little markers that are there. A walkway. All of that has to stay exactly like it was on the day the photographs were taken."
Walker said the DHR is “picking and choosing” which section of the easement it wants to enforce.
“They were trying to get themselves out of protecting a Confederate monument basically,” Walker said. “And unfortunately that’s not the way the thing is written. Unfortunately for them.”
Langan disagrees, saying that because the easement's intent is to protect the historic courthouse and does not even mention the monument, it is not clear or obvious that the monument is protected. She said that if the DHR were to be consulted on the statue's removal, it may, depending on the circumstances, grant approval.
“It is not accurate to state that the easement prohibits removal,” Langan said.
Walker said the foundation believes its hands are tied when it comes to moving the statue. And even if there weren't any hurdles to move it, the foundation generally opposes the removal of monuments.
“I think we would much, much rather explore options to add context or add other monuments so that we are continuing to add to the historic fabric of our city and not remove it,” Walker said.
Plans to add signage near the Confederate statue are underway.