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Statue’s fate debated

South Boston NewsSouth Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, supervisors took no action Monday concerning the Confederate statue at the courthouse. Middle, Sharon Graves implored the Board of Supervisors to take down the Confederate statue at the courthouse, which she said was put up to remind black people of “pain, torture, rape, and the selling of their families.” Above, deputies were summoned to quiet a section of the bleachers where a profanity was shouted out. (David Conner II photos)
SoVaNow.com / August 06, 2020
The Halifax County Board of Supervisors found itself on the receiving end of a spirited debate Monday night as citizens spoke out for and against removing the Confederate soldier statue from the courthouse square in Halifax.

Supervisors took no action nor gave any indication of how they might handle the controversy after a dozen individuals and community groups — including the local NAACP chapter, One Community and the newly-formed Halifax County South Boston Unity Project — called for removing the statue and relocating to the local museum or other interpretative setting. Two days after the meeting, however, the Board scheduled a follow-up session to discuss the matter.

“To keep the statue as a symbol of public display at the courthouse is the same as a statue being made of Adolph Hitler being seen by Jewish people,” said Sharon Graves, the first speaker to address the statue’s fate. “Be not in denial or in ignorance of your excuse to glorify this part of history.

“To hold onto this ideology … you become a thief, a thief to democracy, a thief to equality, and a thief to racial harmony. Do the right thing and remove that statue,” Graves thundered, to the applause of many gathered in the Mary Bethune Complex gymnasium, where Monday night’s Board meeting was held.

Advocates of keeping the statue where it is — going back to 1911, when the Confederate soldier was first erected at the courthouse square — argued that opponents have misinterpreted its meaning and its history.

“This monument is certainly not a symbol of hate. On the contrary, it is a symbol of love and respect for those boys from Halifax County who served and sacrificed for their country,” said Gerald Roxbury, a Navy veteran and board member of the South Boston-Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts and History.

“It is not just a monument but a memorial, to those who have their lives, many of whom are buried in unmarked graves far from their homes and loved ones,” said Roxbury. “Maybe this monument serves as the only way for their kinfolks to remember and honor them — a proxy gravestone if you will.”

More than two dozen speakers addressed the statue’s future, divided equally between those asking to remove it and those pleading to leave it standing. Advocates for each position huddled in separate sections of the Bethune gym bleachers, cheering loudly as speakers made their respective cases.

On two occasions, Board Chair Hubert Pannell admonished the crowd not to disrupt the proceedings. When one speaker, Rebecca Donner of South Boston, reached her time limit and pressed forward, claiming two extra minutes on the clock that was granted to representatives of local community organizations, she was shouted down by audience members in the bleachers.

When one man shouted out a profanity, Pannell asked deputies to surround the bleacher section and remove the next person who interrupted.

“Officers, you’re going to have to do your job. We’re not going to stand for that,” said Pannell.

At another point, Pannell paused Carol Gravitt, outgoing chair of One Community, midway through her presentation to silence the restive pro-statue bleacher section.

“Listen my brothers and sisters, we are people of order,” said Pannell. “You will get your chance to speak.”

Gravitt and Hope Harris-Gayles, both representing One Community, a group of some two dozen citizens that has staged educational programs at The Prizery on Halifax County’s and the country’s racial legacies, argued that the Civil War was fought to preserve slavery, and the statue carries forth that painful chapter of history to the present day.

“George Floyd’s death earlier this year has awakened out country,” said Gravitt, explaining the urgency for taking down the statue after more than a century at the courthouse square. “Systemic racism and racist symbols too long ignored are now getting our attention.”

Gravitt, a retired Halifax lawyer and substitute judge, pushed back at the claim that Confederate monuments are about heritage, not hate: “A person who thinks a Confederate statue has no white supremacist or racist message has not done his homework or has chosen not to believe the ugly truth of history.” Gravitt said it was especially wrong for the statue to stand at the courthouse, where citizens should be able to expect “equal and fair treatment.

“Greeting these litigants and our citizens with a racist symbol of white supremacy is unacceptable,” Gravitt said.

Harris-Gayles also called on Halifax County to reject “a one-sided story of the Confederacy” and “deal unapologetically and decisively with this symbol of oppression in our community.” She said the argument of statue supporters — that removing it would be erasing history — was wrong: “Removing the statue will show this community’s and our society’s evolution towards righting the historical stories told and represented by Confederate statues.

“It will show that when faced with hard truths Halifax County does not look away. Instead, we work together to face these challenges and come out as a stronger, more unified community on the other side,” Harris-Gayles said.

As part of her remarks, Harris-Gayles presented a petition to supervisors with more than 1,000 signatures calling on them to remove the statue. The petition was posted online and open for all to sign, including people living outside of Halifax County.

Later in the meeting, a speaker in favor of keeping the monument, Raymond Anderson, gave supervisors a second petition he said was signed by 219 supporters. Anderson said he collected the pro-statue signatures over a period of three days.

For their part, those asking that the statue be left in place said the other side was trying to erase history. Mitzi Thompson, a member of the Halifax County Militia, a local militia group, spoke of Virginia’s pivotal role in the nation’s wars from the Revolutionary War forward, and said the Civil War, eight decades later, took place as “the fight for America’s freedom was something that was not long in the past … the opposition to tyranny was still very much fresh in America’s hearts.”

Confederate statues such as the one that stands at the courthouse are a reminder that Americans “will stand and fight in the name of freedom above all else,” Thompson said. “To remove history is to forget, to forget the things we have done and why we have done them. Whereas people such as myself stand here before you today to remind you of the truth of our past.”

Odie Lewis, commander of the VFW Post 8243 in Halifax, argued the debate over the statue’s symbolism has been “kind of blown out of proportion. This is nothing more than a memorial to a 19th century soldier, okay, who fought and died for Halifax County and Virginia, their home. No more than any other soldier who fought and died for own homes.”

South Boston attorney George Bagwell, who also asked supervisors to leave the statue in place, drew a distinction between Halifax’s statue and monuments to Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that are coming down in other areas. “That little man in front of the courthouse wasn’t a general on a horse, he was a private with a rifle,” said Bagwell. “He was one of the ones who joined the Confederate army to protect his family and his home.

“I would ask that the monument to our poor old private be left where it is,” said Bagwell.

Bill Crews, commander of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, spoke of his ancestors who fought and died for the cause of the South, never returning home to their loved ones after the war. Saying Halifax’s statue “may have been the only tribute to my family members who were left behind,” Crews cast the decision before supervisors in personal terms: “It is hurtful and mean to defile and defame the memory of one’s family.”

Other speakers, however, offered their own family stories to buttress the case for taking the statue down.

Arthur Reynolds, a former member of the Halifax County School Board, recounted how, in researching his ancestry, he learned that the Reynolds name was taken from a Pittsylvania plantation where his ancestors were enslaved. Reynolds said his efforts to learn more about his forebears ended there. “We are the only race of people in the United States of America that cannot trace our family history beyond slavery,” said Reynolds.

“But at the same time, we know that our ancestors helped build this country and fought in most of the wars that make this one of the greatest nations on earth,” he said.

Victoria Rouch of Alton, who is white, recounted growing up in North Carolina “raised by a racist father.” As such, “my view of this heritage was delivered through a rose-colored lens that did not match what my African American brothers and sisters grew up knowing about their history.”

Rouch asked why defenders of the history of the Old South have “such a narrow focus” on heritage that she said is racist — “the men memorialized by that statue in the town square fought to tear this country apart.” She said the South’s heritage is worth celebrating for far different reasons — “its art, its literature, its music, its medicine, its myriad blessings from Virginia notables.

“That should be our focus going forward, rather than what came so close to dividing us,” she said.

Ebony Guy, granddaughter of late civil rights activist Cora Tucker of Halifax, said that as a child, she would accompany her grandmother to the courthouse square each year for the annual Prayer Day organized by Citizens For A Better America, which Tucker led. Guy recalled how she would play tag around the statue, not aware of its historical undertones as a young child. “I can’t imagine how [my grandmother] felt seeing us run around that statue, knowing the history behind that statue, knowing the hate behind that statue.

“It is painfully obvious that Halifax County needs healing,” Guy said.

Lauren Schopen told supervisors that she both lives and works in sight of the Confederate statue in downtown Halifax. At her family’s restaurant, Molasses Grill, visitors from outside the county have told her that “they think it is backwards to display it at a public courthouse, on public land.

“It is not history …. It is embarrassing, and it is something that does not drive tourism, which is a huge moneymaker for this county,” said Schopen. “It does not drive new businesses to want to relocate here, and it does not drive people to want to live here.”

Schopen recalled a conversation with a restaurant patron visiting from Colorado: “We were at a window that overlooks the courthouse and he asked me why I chose to live in Halifax. And I went on and on about all the reasons I love living here, why I chose to make my life here, and he pointed across the way to the courthouse and asked, ‘What do you think about that eyesore over there?’”

Schopen said she assumed he was referring to the construction going on with the renovations to the courthouse. “He said, no, I mean that embarrassing statue,” Schopen recounted. “He is not alone in his feelings.”

Douglas Powell, a longtime resident of the Town of Halifax, county historian and SCV member, harkened back to his descendants who served in many of the nation’s wars, including the War Between the States, which took the lives of more than 500 soldiers from Halifax County. Saying “this is not Richmond, Charlottesville or Lexington,” Powell recalled how the monument was erected more than a century ago with the unanimous backing of the Board of Supervisors. “Our monument only memorializes Halifax County citizens that served in that war,” said Powell.

The modern-day Board of Supervisors made no decisions, nor did its members offer any comments before moving on to the remainder of the evening’s business agenda.

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Comments

Lol at all these butt hurt liberals all of a sudden being offended, hurt, outraged, blah blah blah at this statue that nobody hardly knew was there in the first place. The woke crowd is doing what they do best - feign outrage just to cause a stink.

None of the woke crowd know what The Civil War was really about. They stick to their talking point that the south fought to preserve slavery and the north fought to end slavery. I am sure it was more complicated than that.

Comments

those traitors fought to preserve their “right” to own men, women, and children as property, and to do with those slaves as they would, up to and including rape and murder. No, such men must not be lionized. Even Lee, as cruel and brutal as we now know him to have been, knew there should be no monuments to him, or to anyone of the Confederacy which had been defeated on the field of battle


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