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Confederate statue at Washington County Courthouse to move due to construction
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Confederate statue at Washington County Courthouse to move due to construction

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ABINGDON, Va. — Since the days of the Great Depression, a Confederate soldier monument has stood outside the Washington County Courthouse in Abingdon.

The concrete marker was moved to the site in 1936 from a spot at the middle of Main Street.

And, now, it has to go — but not because of the controversy surrounding such Civil War monuments, which some feel symbolize slavery, racism or hatred and others believe are part of history.

“It has to be moved because of construction,” said county Supervisor Randy Pennington, a longtime member of the Courthouse Committee that oversees ongoing courthouse construction.

The 152-year-old courthouse on Main Street in Abingdon is currently being renovated and expanded.

What happens next with the soldier statue — and a monument honoring Confederate veterans that also stands on the courthouse lawn — will be the subject of an upcoming public hearing on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the government center building during that night’s meeting of the county Board of Supervisors.

The public hearing is necessary because state law now requires public input before such statues are moved, said County Administrator Jason Berry.

“For Washington County, we’re undertaking the new construction and renovations up at the courthouse,” said county Attorney Lucy Phillips. “And our engineering firm has already advised that the two statues up there need to be removed for construction to proceed.”

Likely, the statues can’t be returned to the courthouse grounds once the construction is complete, Phillips said.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any room for the statue,” she said. “They’re trying to utilize every square footage, every inch that they can,” Phillips said of the property. ‘They’re trying to get as much use as they can and as much space as they can for the courthouse.”

History

In recent years, Civil War monuments have been under attack across Virginia — in cities and towns like Richmond, Farmville, Charlottesville and Portsmouth.

Protesters say such markers should be removed from public squares and places like courthouses because they symbolize racism and hatred. Opponents argue that these markers should stand because they are part of this country’s history.

On Aug. 12, 2017, the controversy boiled over in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist rally resulted in the death of one woman and the injury of 19 other counterprotesters.

Four years later, on July 10, statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were removed in Charlottesville and have since been put in storage.

And in September, a prominent 21-foot statue of Lee was removed in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.

Moving a monument

In 2020, state law regarding how war memorials can be moved, removed or contextualized changed.

For weeks, Phillips said she has consulted with other localities, including Richmond, Loudon County and Williamsburg, that have dealt with the new law.

“I was just looking to find out what people have had elsewhere,” she said. “There’s a state law that the county has to consider on whether to remove the statues.”

Abingdon’s Confederate soldier statue depicts a soldier holding a rifle. It was commissioned in 1906, unveiled in May 1907 and dedicated in June 1908 at the intersection of Court Street and Main Street, according to the Historical Society of Washington County.

Members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped donate the statue when it was placed at the center of Main Street.

“The soldier’s gun is pointed to the North to ward off the Yankees,” said Washington County Treasurer Fred Parker.

The soldier statue was moved to the courthouse lawn on May 14, 1936, because people kept hitting it with their cars, according to the historical society’s files.

The other, much lesser known monument lists the names of five Civil War generals with ties to Washington County.

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Monuments that have been removed from public places in Fairfax County and Richmond have had groups willing to take them, Phillips said.

The attorney said the new state law requires that localities try to find a good location for monuments when they are moved.

“We’ll do some outreach and, hopefully, something will pop up and say, ‘We’d like to have the statues,’” Phillip said. “Hopefully, we’ll get more than one offer.”

Possibly, though, the monuments could be moved out of the county, she added.

“There’s no limit by state law for it to stay within the county,” she said.

Taking ownership

Suggestions on where to move the monuments include Sinking Spring Cemetery or the Veterans Memorial Park — both owned by the town of Abingdon.

“We don’t own the statue,” said Abingdon Town Manager Jimmy Morani.

Additionally, Morani said he has not been involved in any discussion about moving the monuments.

“You don’t deed statues, to my knowledge,” said Parker. “But I think a statue on a piece of property — like that — may be considered a fixture or an improvement on a property.”

County officials have claimed ownership since the monuments sit on county-owned grounds.

“Nobody has called us to welcome the statue at any location at this point,” Berry said. “Nobody’s called asking for the statue.”

When the board decides to move the monuments, the county has to offer the pieces to museums, historical societies or military battlefields, according to the new state law, Phillips said.

Following the public hearing, a 30-day period is required before any action takes place, Phillips said.

Opinions of the statue

At this point, members of the Historical Society of Washington County have not voiced a public opinion on the future of the monuments, said the society’s president, Walter Jenny.

“It is obviously a controversial subject,” Jenny said. “We have not addressed it at all.”

There have been no public demonstrations against the presence of the Confederate monuments, according to Phillips.

However, 22 people spoke about the soldier monument — with 10 against the monument and 12 against moving it — at a Board of Supervisors meeting on July 14, 2020.

On that night, a presentation on the soldier statue was delivered by Heather Evans, a faculty member at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

One of the speakers was Eric McReynolds, a county resident who has since addressed the board again.

McReynolds, 53, represents a group called American History Preservation, and he has tried to encourage the board to move both monuments to the Veterans Memorial Park — “or to the government building. Either way,” said McReynolds, a barber in Abingdon. “Most citizens want the statues preserved where they’re accessible to the public and to the next generation.”

Berry said public comments are important.

“The board felt it was important to have both sides have their say — those who wanted to keep it and those who wanted to move it,” Berry said.

Still, the board took no action.

But action must come in early December, following a second public hearing.

“We don’t know where the board wants to move it.” Berry said. “If there’s not a home for it, we may have to board it up and put it somewhere on our property. It’s going to move, even if it’s a temporary move — for construction.”

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