MARTINSVILLE–How do you respect history, while also honoring the feelings of local residents? That’s a question many cities and counties here in Virginia, as well as across the country, are struggling with, when it comes to Confederate monuments. There are monuments to the Confederacy in Martinsville, but as far as local residents both black and white are concerned, there’s no movement to see them torn down.
“It’s really interesting, because we celebrate the Boston Tea Party while tearing down the Confederate rebellion,” said Martinsville Vice Mayor Chad Martin, who is African-American.
The issue becomes how do you respect history while also respecting the United States, as opposed to some Southern states that wanted to break away.”
Martin has gone to the General Assembly building several times, but during his last visit, he was able to tour the capital in a tourist capacity instead of as an advocate. He really got a chance to read and hear the rich history of how important Virginia was, he said,
“While I love learning about history, I am not a fan of honoring people who upheld the principles of enslaving any human being,” Martin said. “If we are going to be honest about history, we must be true to all of it and not the glorified pieces that take away morality and the responsibility of treating people with humanity.”
Martin said he feels Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War and reluctant secessionist, answered the dilemma best in his 1881 apologia (a written defense of something one believes in strongly) “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”. In it, Davis said “my pride is that that flag shall not set between contending brothers; and that, when it shall no longer be the common flag of the country, it shall be folded up and laid away like a vesture no longer used.”
The issue was raised during the recent primary races, especially the one for lieutenant governor. Democratic candidate Susan Platt called for the commonwealth to take down Confederate monuments on public property and rename Confederate-themed highways and public buildings.
Though Platt lost her bid for the nomination, that proposal raised questions which were again brought up after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last Saturday. That rally was originally set up to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in the city. Questions were raised locally about the Confederate statute sitting in front of the historic courthouse in Martinsville. Residents called and emailed the Bulletin, checking to see if what they saw happening in other areas, protests and a push to remove structures, was happening here. The answer was a simple no and with a clear reason: the monument is on private land and so the city has no authority to move it.
That Confederate monument, as well as two other statutes on the historic courthouse square, is privately owned. Also, there is a portion of the Virginia Code that local officials point to, which also seems clear on the issue.
Virginia Code section 15.2-1812 says of memorials for war veterans, “If such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same. For purposes of this section, ‘disturb or interfere with’ includes removal of, damaging or defacing monuments or memorials, or, in the case of the War Between the States, the placement of Union markings or monuments on previously designated Confederate memorials or the placement of Confederate markings or monuments on previously designated Union memorials.”
Even without the portion of the Virginia Code, local residents feel like those symbols of the past are best left up, to help people remember the events that happened.
“Perhaps if we leave it there, it will remind others that there are still some that want to divide the union and return this country to the days prior to the Civil War,” said Curtis Millner Sr. Millner Sr., who is African-American, is the former chairman of the board of directors of the Fayette Area Historical Initiative and current chairman of the Henry County School Board.
“Let’s not fight the Civil War again,” Millner said. “Let the descendants of those that put it there come to grips with themselves and do the right thing.”
Millner also cited the need for everyone to get more involved in the democratic process by registering to vote, voting, running for public office and learning to live together as one.
For Virginia King, a board member and past president of the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, the issue is about preserving history. The society owns both the statutes and the historic courthouse where they are placed.
“I think (Confederate monuments and road names) are an important part of our history,” King, who is Caucasian, said. “[But] I can also see the other side. I’m hesitant to try to wipe out people in the past who are an important part of our history.”
A 2016 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization, identified 223 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces in Virginia, more than any other state. For this area, it identified “Jeb Stuart Road” and Jefferson Davis Drive for Martinsville, and the city of Stuart and Stuart Elementary School for Stuart.
Officials with the local NAACP, Henry County government, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans and some others did not respond to requests for comment by presstime.
Where did they come from?
According to research at local libraries and a 2001 Martinsville Bulletin article, the Mildred Lee Chapter United Daughters of the Confederacy unveiled the monument to Henry County’s Confederate War veterans on June 3, 1901, and the group observed the 100th anniversary of the unveiling in 2001.
The idea of a Confederate monument began with Mrs. N.H. Hairston and her sister, Mrs. W.L. Zentmyer. On Sept. 17, 1895, they organized a Memorial Association to erect the monument in memory of Confederate veterans and the one unknown soldier killed in Stoneman’s Raid at Jones Creek. On Oct. 3, 1895, the cornerstone of the monument was laid in Oakwood Cemetery in a ceremony.
On April 3, 1896, the Monument Association decided to merge with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and a chapter was granted in July 1896. It later was named the Mildred Lee Chapter, in honor of General Robert E. Lee’s daughter. Various entertainments were held to raise funds for and interest in the monument. Later, the chapter got permission to erect the monument at the courthouse, instead of Oakwood Cemetery.
The monument was constructed of Virginia granite, with the Confederate soldier carved of Italian marble in Genoa, Italy. A Confederate reunion was held with the unveiling of the statue on the courthouse lawn. Several thousand people attended, including 200 Confederate veterans. Special trains from Danville, Stuart, Roanoke, Wytheville, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, were run.
“I am not a fan of holding monuments to war of any nature, but I think it's important that we have reminders of what we once were so we never forget the ugly past of this country,” Martin said.
Paul Collins reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at email@example.com