Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The many moves of Williamsburg’s Confederate monument

An obelisk in Bicentennial Park memorializes Confederate soldiers from the City of Williamsburg and James City County. (WYDaily file photo)

Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Duke of Gloucester Street in Bicentennial Park stands a war memorial to Confederate soldiers.

The light traffic and seclusion have kept the monument out of the public’s eye.

Until now.

On Aug. 12, violence erupted at a “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville after the city indicated it wanted to move a statue of Confederate war hero Robert E. Lee. Three people died and dozens were injured during demonstrations and counter protests at the event.

Since Charlottesville, there have been calls from some of Virginia’s top-ranking elected officials to keep the public safe and to open up dialogue on Confederate war memorials.

Hoping for “a candid community conversation”

That dialogue is something Williamsburg Mayor Paul Freiling is preparing for.

“If the monument becomes a rallying point for anything, we hope that will be a candid community conversation about how far we have come in the area of race relations, how very far we still have to go, and how we will work together to get there,” Freiling wrote in an email.

The monument itself existed before Colonial Williamsburg did.

Confederate monument detail
One of the inscriptions on the Williamsburg Confederate monument reads that it is dedicated to the Confederate soldiers of Williamsburg and James City County. (Photo Andy Harris/WYDaily)

Dedicated to Williamsburg and James City County’s confederate soldiers and sailors, it was erected on the Palace Green in 1908 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, according to a historical marker database.

Years later, the memorial was moved to stand in front of the Williamsburg-James City County Courthouse near South England Street, and again when the courthouse moved to where the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum now stands, according to former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Wilford Kale.

In July 2000, the monument was moved again, this time to a small park surrounded by old growth trees as the new Williamsburg-James City County Courthouse opened on Monticello Avenue, according to Kale.

The site where the obelisk now stands, Bicentennial Park, was created in 1977, according to a placard in the park. There was a small monument dedication in November 2000 by the Daughters of the Confederacy, Kale said.

So has Williamsburg’s Confederate monument found its final resting place?

In 1998, the General Assembly made it illegal for cities and counties to remove, move, or “disturb” war monuments, according to the Virginia Code.

The measure, House Bill 845 – “Memorials for war veterans” – received broad bipartisan support, with only one dissenting vote in both the Senate and the House of Delegates.

Even though Williamsburg’s monument was relocated in 2000, after the measure became law, there’s little room to question that it’s a war memorial.

Freiling said the monument was simply dedicated to the soldiers and sailors of the area who fought in the Civil War.

“The monument is a memorial intended to recognize the service and sacrifice of soldiers and sailors,” Freiling wrote in an email. “They were sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, and they had families who suffered loss. They each have a story, and they are worth understanding.”

For now, the city of Williamsburg’s in a holding pattern.

“According to state code, localities cannot remove a monument of any war or conflict once it has been erected,” City of Williamsburg spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said. “Changes to state code are made by the state legislators.”

She added: “As of now, we will monitor litigation pertaining to this particular law as well as watch for any legislative changes coming out of Richmond.”

But one week after the unrest and violence in Charlottesville, external pressures are mounting.

Confederate Monument detail
The Confederate monument in Bicentennial Park was erected in 1908 by the Daughters of the Confederacy and citizens of Williamsburg and James City County. (Photo Andy Harris, Jr./WYDaily)

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate group, has listed the monument in Williamsburg as the last standing Confederate memorial in the Historic Triangle.

The SPLC is encouraging members of the public to contact local politicians and news organizations in areas where monuments are still standing.

“Confederate symbols on public land, in effect, endorse a movement founded on white supremacy,” reads part of a letter the group is encouraging people to send.

In Danville, the city became embroiled in a lawsuit over whether or not a donated flagpole is a war memorial after the city broke off a contract with the Heritage Preservation Association to fly the Confederate standard from the flagpole, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And an emblem of the Confederate battle flag was removed from the College of William & Mary’s college mace in 2015 amid national outcry after a racially charged massacre in Charleston, SC.

Learning from the past

One of the inscriptions on the monument reads, in part, “LEST WE FORGET.” (Photo Andy Harris/WYDaily)

Meanwhile, the man who led the push for the park, Wilford Kale, Jr., said he doesn’t see a problem with the memorial’s current location because “there was a war fought here.”

“I think locally there’s been no effort to promote that monument other than to retain it,” Kale said. “It’s in an out of the way place. It’s not prominent. I think the only way it’s maintained is the grass is cut around it. If it were still on the old courthouse green, or if it were over there by the new courthouse, I could see where it would cause a problem.”

Kale, a Vietnam veteran, said the memorial honors the soldiers and sailors who fought in nearby battles during the Civil War.

“The bulk of the people have no more idea there’s a monument there, but I never go by there and think of the Civil War,” Kale said. “I think of the people who lost their lives, fighting, I mean I was in Vietnam. In retrospect there were probably lots of things wrong there, but when I think of Vietnam memorials I don’t think of it as a memorial for what America was trying to do. I think of it as a memorial to the men and women who fought in the wars.”

As a country, we should be wary to forget the past lest we repeat it, Kale added.

“I get really troubled by the notion we’re going to eliminate the monuments because, unfortunately for good or bad, that’s the history of the Commonwealth,” he said.

Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post,, and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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