SMITHFIELD, Va. (WAVY) — More than 100 people showed up to a public hearing Thursday night to share their thoughts on the future Isle of Wight Confederate monument.
For nearly four hours inside the Smithfield High School cafeteria, the Board of Supervisors listened to a wide array of opinions ranging from those who want the monument moved, those who wanted to stay where it is, and those who want additional monuments to surround the original.
The hearing was scheduled following a change in state law that allows localities to move their war monuments. In July, several citizens came to advocate for the removal of the monument from the historic county complex.
“This is a long time coming,” said Valerie Butler, president of Isle of Wight Branch of the NAACP. “Public property where people have to enter and go into the courthouse complex is not [a location] where a Confederate monument is located because of what it represents.”
Butler and other citizens who spoke in front of the board have labeled monuments to the “Confederate dead” as symbols of oppression, especially toward Black Americans.
“We don’t want it destroyed. But move it to where those people that feel like it’s part of the heritage … can still go and visit it. Like at a cemetery or museum.”
The monument itself is historic. It was erected in front of what was then the Isle of Wight County Courthouse in 1905 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was placed during the height of the “Lost Cause” movement, according to the state Department of Historic Resources. The statue of a soldier atop was likely custom made.
“There’s nothing on that monument [that] tells you that it’s racist,” Ed Whitley, commander of the Isle of Wight Avengers Camp #14 Sons of Confederate Veterans, said. “The soldier atop isn’t in a fighting position. He is standing watch. Watch over the dead. Many of whom had no choice but to fight in the war.”
Thursday’s turnout at the Board of Supervisors meeting was by far is the largest turnout for a public hearing on a Confederate monument movement in the Hampton Roads region.
In addition to those who showed up to the meeting, more than 90 letters were written into the board ahead of time. The majority of the attendees wore stickers saying “Save our Monuments Now.” Some were even on their face coverings.
Whitley is worried about the monument being damaged if it is moved. Members of the local NAACP chapter, meanwhile, say they are afraid it could be damaged by others if it isn’t.
In June, a man was seriously injured when protesters worked to vandalize and dismantle the Confederate monument in the Olde Towne area of Portsmouth.
Others are afraid that a vote by the Board of Supervisors to relocate the memorial would set a precedent.
“You take down the Isle of Wight Confederate monument, you play a role in taking down every other monument they’ve been after,” resident Volpe Boykin said.
He suggested erecting a separate monument next to the current one that pays tribute specifically to African Americans who served in the war.
“Why don’t we to take some time to work together to build something instead of taking our time destroying stuff?” Boykin said to cheers from the audience.
However, that didn’t appear to be a welcome compromise to all.
“I don’t think there’s a person in this room that would encourage you to add a statue to Monument Circle of a slave that was being beaten or raped,” said Jerry Tenny, of Smithfield. “Those that call for the (monument) decision to be about saving heritage [don’t] want to admit that part of the heritage. They want to omit.”
Supervisors didn’t vote immediately after the public hearing in order to allow for electronic comments to continue to come in until midnight. A vote on relocation could be made as soon as the board’s next meeting on Sept. 17.
Leaders in Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Williamsburg, Newport News and Pasquotank County, North Carolina, are some localities in the region that have already voted to relocate their monuments.
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