NorthEarly 158 years after its founding, West Virginia, a state forged from the fires of America’s civil war, remains trapped between north and south. Now lawmakers are considering a bill that would protect Confederate monuments from being removed or renamed. Supporters say they are protecting everyone’s history. Opponents call the bill “traumatic and mentally draining.”
At a time of national reckoning over race, the debate is fierce. “We were the Union. West Virginia was born out of Virginia’s secession, if I’m not mistaken, ”said Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, one of the state’s few black legislators. “We are defending the people who wanted to kill us.”
The bill being considered by West Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature would criminalize the removal of Confederate statues unless that removal is first approved by the state’s historic preservation office.
National change has clearly boosted the West Virginia bill. “We’ve seen a lot of attacks on historic names and monuments, and I think West Virginia is in a unique position, historically, to have an interest in that,” said Delegate Chris Phillips, Republican and lead sponsor of the bill.
The West Virginia Monuments and Memorials Protection Act of 2021 seeks to prevent city councils, county commissions, boards of education, universities, and any other public entity from removing statues or renaming structures dedicated to individuals who participated in a United States military conflict, unless the removal or name change has been approved by the State of West Virginia Historic Preservation Office.
The bill would affect the monuments of every military conflict in American history, from the French and Indian War to the Second Gulf War. It would also prevent the removal or renaming of monuments to the labor movement, civil rights movement, Native American history, or natural disasters.
Anyone who does not go through this process could be fined $ 500 and spend six months in jail.
Phillips says it’s important to take away the authority of local governments to remove monuments because history belongs to everyone, not just the locals.
“If there is a legitimate desire and need to remove monuments or change the name of something in the state, then I think it behooves us to have a process in place that is calm and thoughtful,” Phillips said. “And have historians involved in it.”
Critics say there is another motivation behind the bill.
“I don’t see any other reason for that,” said David Fryson, attorney and minister who previously served as West Virginia University vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s not like we have Nazi monuments in West Virginia. It’s not like we have another kind of historical challenge. It’s about the Confederate monuments. “
In particular, Fryson suspects that the bill is a response to debates over Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s monument on the West Virginia capitol grounds. Jackson was born in what would become West Virginia, but fought against the creation of the state.
West Virginia was born during the American Civil War when West Virginia state legislators decided to remain loyal to the United States while the rest of Virginia broke away to join the Confederacy.
Hornbuckle, a Democrat, echoed Fryson’s concerns during the debate on the bill.
“Why this? Why now?” he said. “All of us witnessed the summer of our country at a boiling point.”
Hornbuckle is also concerned that the legislation will strip local governments of decision-making power for their communities.
“You tell people that you don’t care anymore, and the people here in Charleston are going to make the decision for you,” he said in an interview with The Guardian.
He points to a recent example from his district: Marshall University students and staff wanted to change the name of the educational building on campus. It was named for Albert Jenkins, a former Marshall student and Confederate general whose men captured free blacks in Pennsylvania to sell as slaves.
The school’s board of governors initially resisted changing the name. They reconsidered it after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 and the protests that followed.
Under the Phillips bill, the school would not have had the autonomy to change the name.
Hornbuckle attempted to add an amendment to the bill, removing references to the state historic preservation office and replacing it with “local government municipalities.”
The House leadership did not even vote on his amendment, although Democrats were able to modify the bill so that any citizen could directly petition the historic preservation office to remove a statue or change the name of a structure. The invoice passed the House of Delegates with a vote of 70-28. The majority of the votes against came from Democrats.
Hornbuckle says that when the legislature considers changes to the state’s judicial system, lawmakers rely on the expertise of the attorneys in the room. When they work on education bills, they trust the educators in the chamber.
But when it comes to a bill like this, people don’t listen to the historians in the room. Or the people it affects the most in this room, ”Hornbuckle said. “It’s traumatic and mentally draining, working for the betterment of all West Virginia residents and they remind you that they don’t value you.”
Phillips insists the bill is not racially motivated.
“This is not a Confederate act of protection that some people try to do (pretend to be). I am really interested in preserving history, ”he said. “I really feel like there is a risk of losing historical perspective.”
He credits his own interest in history by seeing a statue of Stonewall Jackson in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the hometown of the Confederate general.
“His military genius is still studied today, and that doesn’t make him admirable for the cause he fights for, but he is still very important. And certainly very important to West Virginia and the area, ”he said.
But David Trowbridge, a history professor at Marshall University, says that many of the Confederate monuments in West Virginia are themselves an attempt to erase history.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored a massive monument-raising campaign from the group’s founding in the late 19th century to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. The statues and plaques were part of an effort to change the historical narrative on the civil war. They insisted that the civil war was not about slavery and that slavery “civilized” African Americans. The group helped popularize the Gone with the Wind image of a glamorous prewar South and attempted to paint its military leaders as tragic heroes.
“They were trying to erase history. They wanted to create a false narrative, ”Trowbridge said.
Trowbridge created Clio, a location-based application that provides stories from thousands of sites in the United States, written by academics. According to Clio’s entry for the Stonewall Jackson statue that inspired Phillips’s love of history, the monument was erected by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1953, just 16 years before the delegate was born.
It’s unclear how the monument protection bill will fare in the West Virginia state senate. The legislation has been referred to the Senate judicial committee but, as of this writing, the committee has not yet taken action. The regular session of the legislature ends on April 10.
Fryson suspects the bill could backfire if passed. When the removal of a monument becomes an even more time consuming and frustrating process, members of the public may decide to take direct action.
“It very well could end up being a cause for cause taking them down,” Fryson said. “I think people could – and I suggest they should – resort to civil disobedience.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism