Thursday, July 7, 2022

Should it stay or should it go: Williamsburg braces for public hearing on Bicentennial Park Confederate memorial

The memorial to confederate soldiers and sailors has stood in Bicentennial Park since 2000. (WYDaily/Alexa Doiron)
The memorial to confederate soldiers and sailors has stood in Bicentennial Park since 2000. (WYDaily/Alexa Doiron)

It’s a scene all too familiar these days: Protesters trashing, destroying Confederate memorials and monuments in cities all across the U.S.

Albeit smaller compared to more prominent memorials, the one in Bicentennial Park is now more visible than ever as Williamsburg city officials ponder what to do with it.

The local Confederate memorial appears to have been spared the severity of other incidents, but it didn’t escape being vandalized.

The memorial had an “X” crossing out the Confederate flags and the letters “BLM” on the memorial’s base in spray paint.

No one really knows when it was tagged, not even Williamsburg Police, who received the report earlier this month.

The monument was first erected in 1908 by the Daughters of the Confederacy and is dedicated Williamsburg and James City County’s Confederate soldiers and sailors. But this monument and others across the country was erected during an era when the children of Confederate soldiers were still holding onto values that erased African Americans, said Stephanie Arduini, deputy director of the American Civil War Museum. 

“It’s interesting to think about because for some of these folks, I don’t doubt there was memory and a goal to honor fallen family members,” she said. “But it’s so intertwined with how an especially conservative white movement…was remembering the history and emphasizing values that erased those who didn’t fit.”

Arduini said the statues and memorials often were erected as part of a political tactic, decades after the Civil War ended in 1865. Many children of veterans during that time were living in a post-reconstruction America and seeing rights for African Americans were changing.

“People were using these to make statements that even though the Civil War ended, the confederacy was still there,” she said. 

The monument in Williamsburg was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy who have funded the development of Confederate memorials across the country in the last century, according to the United Daughters of the Confederacy website.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy did not respond for comment but released a statement in 2018 expressing their sadness that the monuments and the Confederate flag have been used to represent symbols of hatred.

“It is our sincere wish that our great nation and its citizens will continue to let its fellow Americans, the descendants of Confederate soldiers, honor the memory of their ancestors,” according to the statement. “Indeed, we urge all Americans to honor their ancestors’ contributions to our country as well. This diversity is what makes our nation stronger.”

Discussions have re-emerged across the state about how and whether to remove the statues after Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill in March that gives localities authority to remove, relocate or add context to Confederate monuments starting July 1.

During a recent Williamsburg City Council meeting, council members started a discussion about potentially removing the memorial. There has been a mix of responses from residents since then, said Mayor Paul Freiling.

“There are some who feel very strongly that the memorial should come down because of what they feel it represents but there are others who have presented a counter perspective that the memorial represents history and we shouldn’t hide or gloss over it,” Freiling said. 

Localities have to follow a multiple-months long process in order to make a decision on the monument. Freiling said the city is required to advertise a public hearing at least 30 days prior, after which a vote on action regarding the memorial can be taken. If the city decides to remove the monument, then it must wait another 30 days to receive offers of possession, which could come from a specific designated source such as a battlefield.

The public hearing for the monument will be on July 14, at which point Freiling will no longer be mayor but newly elected city council member Caleb Rogers will have been inaugurated.

“I think it’s a necessary decision and I’m glad that it’s coming right when I’m able to receive the ability to decide whether to remove the monument,” Rogers said. “It’s a surface-level decision and performative by nature, but it’s something important to do.”

Rogers said he plans to support the removal of the monument because having a symbol of the Confederacy at a city park doesn’t represent the inclusion the city should be aiming for. As a history minor at William & Mary, he cares about preserving history but thinks it should be done in a battlefield or museum. 

The public hearing will be at 2 p.m. For more information, visit Williamsburg online.

In contrast, the city of Norfolk was able to remove their Confederate monument recently.

“We took the statue down quickly last week in the interest of public safety following the events that took place in Portsmouth,” Lori Crouch, spokeswoman for the city wrote in an email.

According to a recent news release, Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander announced the city would remove the statue “Johnny Reb” immediately out of concern the statue would lead to injury or violence.

The 16-foot bronze statue weighs approximately 2,500 pounds and the city closed roads and sidewalks for its removal.

“After it came down – it became clear people were still climbing onto the monument to graffiti it,” Crouch said. “This is why we are moving forward this week to remove the remaining portion of the monument.”

“The public hearing will still take place on July 7,” she added.

In Richmond Wednesday, concrete barriers were installed around statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, hours after demonstrators tore down a different Confederate monument.

WYDaily Multimedia reporter Julia Marsigliano contributed to this story.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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