PEARISBURG — “Lest We Forget” is one of the messages inscribed on the marble base of the copper soldier overlooking Main Street and the grounds of the Giles County courthouse.
At least some in Pearisburg agree with that snippet when it comes to the structures erected ages ago in honor of those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
“I just think it’s history, and I think we need to leave history alone,” town resident David Rakes said while waiting to get a haircut in the barbershop across the street from Giles’ Confederate monument. “I mean, why would we want to take something down that’s part of our history? … We should know what’s good or bad, we should know either side. The monument’s not going to change anybody’s life one way or the other, I don’t think.”
The Giles monument isn’t slated to come down, but legislation that has cleared both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly would make it easier to remove the more -than -century -old landmark and others like it.
The House and Senate in the past week passed their own versions of bills that would give localities the authority to remove Confederate war monuments. The Senate’s version, however, would make the process a little tougher as it calls on any proposed removal to meet a variety of conditions such as a historical study, public hearings over a period of months, a super-majority vote by the local governing body and an optional referendum.
The legislation comes amid an ongoing effort among activists and academics to reexamine the roots of the monuments and other Confederate symbols. The movement has involved highly publicized cases such as the 2018 removal by protesters of the University of North Carolina’s Silent Sam statue and a so -far unsuccessful effort to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville — which was the focal point of a 2017 white nationalist rally that turned deadly.
Giles’ statue is among the more than 20 Confederate monuments that were erected across Southwest Virginia between 1883 and 1920, according to an online list kept by the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. Most of the monuments are either the “courthouse common soldier” or an obelisk. Some of the more modest monuments are tablets.
Among other examples, Christiansburg’s monument is an obelisk located on town property just in front of a Wells Fargo branch at the corner of South Franklin and East Main streets. The town’s monument, erected in 1883, is considered the earliest Confederate monument in the region, according to the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies.
Blacksburg’s monument is another obelisk located in the town-owned Westview Cemetery, a burial site for several notable Civil War veterans. Among those buried at the cemetery is Harvey Black, a descendant of the town’s founder and a doctor who was in attendance during the amputation of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s left arm following the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863.
History or hate? Battle continues
While defenders of the monuments say the structures should remain for purely historical purposes, opponents argue that the relics keep alive racist ideologies that can continue to have an effect on current politics.
“We don’t need these kinds of cheap stone structures to understand the past,” said Matt Gabriele, a Virginia Tech history professor and former member of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. “What we need is better contextualizing of what was happening at the time and what the Civil War was about.”
Other academics say that many of the monuments were not only built to remember Confederate soldiers, but erected to reflect the policies of racist white communities at the time.
Paul Quigley, another Tech professor who specializes in Civil War history, referenced data collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which regularly tracks hate groups and extremists across the U.S.
The SPLC, at about this time last year, released an updated version of a report analyzing the deeper history of Confederate symbols. The report points out that by far the biggest spike of Confederate monuments occurred between 1900 to 1920, with a great number of the structures at the time being erected on courthouse and other government grounds.
Quigley said part of the reason for the spike was to honor veterans who were getting older at the time.
“It was also a time when white Southerners were kind of reconsolidating that power over local and state politics,” he said.
The SPLC points out that the spike in monuments in the early 1900s occurred shortly after Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, which were passed to disenfranchise African Americans and re-segregate society following Reconstruction. The organization reports that the exceptional volume of monuments continued well into the 1920s, a period that saw a revival of the Ku Klux Klan.
The monuments “have had everything to do with racism since they went up,” said Adam Domby, a history professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, adding that those who reject the structures’ racist origins are “denying what the very people said at the dedication.”
Domby is the author of “The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory,” a recently released book that takes aim at a widely held narrative that the Confederacy’s struggle had nothing to do with racism and was instead a heroic defense of the South.
“The vast majority of these [monuments] went up during the Jim Crow era,” Domby said. “We’re not just talking about the Civil War, we’re talking about Jim Crow era … an overturning of the outcome of the war.”
For others such as Robert Barbour, the monuments hold a place near and dear to the heart.
Barbour is the long-time commander of the Fincastle Rifles #1326, the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp that represents the localities of Roanoke, Salem and Montgomery County. The camp is under the Virginia division’s Third Brigade, which on a broader scope covers the entire New River Valley.
Membership to the Sons of Confederate Veterans is open to all male descendants of any veteran who served in the Confederate armed forces.
Barbour criticized the General Assembly and described the monument bills as just part of a greater agenda being pushed by the now Democrat-controlled legislature.
“My opinion is [they] are scumbags,” Barbour said. “It goes right down to the Second Amendment, everything they’re doing. I have a right to my history just like everyone else. When they do deny me that, that’s what I think of them: as scumbags.”
Giles’ Civil War mementos
The statue just outside the Giles County courthouse was dedicated on Aug. 9, 1909. It was the first construction project spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s local McComas Chapter, according to historical records kept by the county Historical Society.
The Giles statue was re-dedicated in 1999 after it was cleaned by a specialist in the restoration and preservation of historic structures. The restoration was funded by the county Board of Supervisors and the McComas Chapter, according to a re-dedication pamphlet.
The statue is of no specific soldier or figure from the era. While most statues were made to order, there were a few standard designs for which dies were kept on hand, according to historical records.
Due to the fact that other statues identical to Giles’ exist, it’s highly likely that the monument in Pearisburg was a standard design, according to records.
Other inscriptions on the monument commemorate Giles’ furnishing of seven volunteer companies numbering about 800 men during the Civil war.
Inside the lobby of the courthouse is a large frame containing the Confederate Medal of Honor awarded to Giles native Tapley Mays, a 7th Virginia Infantry member who died in battle in 1862.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ricky McCoy said the topic of the county’s monument hasn’t come up in recent discussions among his colleagues.
McCoy said he hasn’t given the legislation much thought due to the fact that it hasn’t been signed into law yet. He said the discussion will likely come up after the end of the General Assembly’s session — assuming a law about monuments is in place.
“I think time will tell,” he said.
McCoy said he doesn’t have an opinion on monuments at this time.
However, at least one call to bring down Giles’ monument has been made in recent years.
During the summer of 2017, an individual — who ended the correspondence with Concerned Citizens against People Lost in the Past — sent an insult-laden email to the county clerk of the Circuit Court criticizing the monument outside the courthouse.
The county administration provided a copy of the email in response to a request from the Roanoke Times.
The email’s subject line was “Remove r------- from your judicial/law enforcement/educational/business and other orgs.”
Addressing Giles County officials, the writer began the email by calling on the locality to remove the statue in front of the “pathetic little racist courthouse” and require all of the judges, sheriff and “other suspected Klan members and sympathizers” take an allegiance to the United States and disavow white supremacy.
The writer goes on to make several claims of racism and anti-American leanings against the county.
“The days are numbered for you confederate anarchist court/law enforcement and etc. antebellum systematic discrimination of any type,” the email reads. “So enjoy it while you can, your false legal system will eventually fall right on its ugly face just like the pathetic statue that honors the rebels but no Korean/Vietnam statues — Pathetic!”
Opinions on local monuments mixed
The SPLC’s 2019 report stated at the time that 114 Confederate symbols had been removed in the U.S. since the 2015 killings of nine African Americans at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The massacre, committed by a white supremacist, sparked a nationwide debate about Confederate symbols.
The SPLC reported last year that 1,747 Confederate symbols still stood at the time.
Despite the research and history, Quigley said it’s tough to get an overwhelming consensus on what the symbols truly convey due to the very strong emotions on both sides of the debate.
“The tricky thing is they mean different things to different people. That’s really the problem, I think, in the public debate,” he said. “One side sees them as commemorations of the war effort and the soldiers who fought in that war. The other side sees them as a reminder of the history of white supremacy. It’s difficult because both of those arguments exist powerfully.”
Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber is sympathetic to those in favor of keeping the monuments around for historic purposes.
“It’s without question that the Civil War, slavery, was a sad time in the nation,” he said. But “it’s history. It’s kind of like we’re trying to erase that entire section. If we’re going to do that, let’s take down all monuments. I guess I’m old fashioned.”
Like McCoy in Giles, Barber said he’s refraining from taking a definitive stance on the matter until after a law is in place and if the issue ever comes before town council.
“That’s kind of a bridge maybe we ought to cross when it happens,” Barber said.
Barber, however, said he thinks it would be a shame if the obelisk was to ever come down.
“It’s stood on the square for 140 years,” he said. “Half the people don’t even know what it was for.”
Debbie Travis, president of the Montgomery County-Radford City-Floyd County branch of the NAACP, said it’s her chapter’s stance to generally support the removal of Confederate monuments in public spaces.
“Generally, members as a whole feel that the monuments should come down because it’s a reflection of a past that wasn’t very pleasant,” Travis said. These monuments “continue honoring these persons who didn’t see that slavery was wrong and people of color were treated unjustly. It just brings back too many memories when we look at these monuments. … They should be removed and maybe put in a museum, because they are part of history.”
Back in Pearisburg, store owner Kip Gentry disagrees that the monuments — particularly the one just down the street from his business — promote hate.
“I mean, it’s heritage, not hate. It’s culture, I guess. Southern culture that people live by. That’s just what it is. It’s history,” he said. “I think it needs to stay. It’s just part of history. It is what it is.”
Gentry owns The Peddler, a general supply store in downtown Pearisburg that sells merchandise such as paper towels, shampoo and socks. At the back of the store, however, are decorative items that include Confederate-themed license plates and signs. One of the metal signs is of two Confederate battle flags held up over the word “Dixie.”
While he argues that Confederate monuments should have no place in public, Gabriele, the Tech professor, agrees with the General Assembly’s proposal to let the localities decide.
“I do appreciate the Democrats’ approach to this. It really should be up to the localities,” Gabriele said. “I’m not the person to tell them what to do. … I think this is the exact right approach. They’re taking a much more moderate approach, which I think is the right tone here.”