FINCASTLE – Unraveling the knotty history of who owns the Confederate monument in front of the Botetourt County Courthouse has tied up the Committee of Monuments and Memorials as they research ownership of the more than a century old obelisk.
During its Sept. 24 meeting that question was addressed and referred to the county attorney Mike Lockaby to research who owns the statue. “We can spend a lot of time thinking of a solution, which is a waste [of time] if the monument is not even owned by the county,” said Bill Tanger, the Oldfields/Reservoir Road community representative on the committee. The committee is slated to present a non-binding recommendation to the Board of Supervisors at its Jan. 26, meeting. Supervisor and Chairman of the Committee Steve Clinton said the BoS decided this was the best approach instead of using a ballot referendum or leaving a decision solely to them.
Ownership of a Confederate monument is not unique to Botetourt County. Across Virginia, municipalities are struggling to discover who owns monuments honoring Confederate soldiers and the Confederacy. From Loudoun County in Northern Virginia to Richmond questions over ownership have been raised. The confusion, according to various news reports, stems from the monuments being more than a century old, during which pro-Confederate and civil groups disbanded. The Confederacy heritage in Virginia is particularly pointed, as that Richmond was once the capital of the Confederate states. But attitudes towards the past may be changing. A poll released on Sept. 29 by The Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed 46 percent of Virginians support removal of Confederate statues while 42 percent oppose removal.
A state law previously barred localities from taking down Confederate memorials but was repealed on July 1. In the months that followed nearly 20 localities have removed Confederate monuments and nine have decisions pending, according to the Virginia Public Access Project’s website.
Chester Adams, the county school board’s representative, said whoever owns the monument should be responsible for finding a more suitable place if the Board of Supervisors decides on removal. “If it belongs to the county, then the county should be responsible for finding a more suitable place; if it belongs to a citizen group, then those citizens should find a more suitable place …,” he said.
If the BoS decided to move the monument, Mitch Bowman, of Historic Fincastle, suggested placing it on a strip land in Fincastle donated by Robert Housman. The intent of the donated land, he said, was to create a memorial park, maybe this site would be a good location, suggesting a site to honor veterans of all wars.
Overall, members are hearing both positive and negatives about the monument. Lewis Sifford of the Botetourt Artillery said he has heard ideas of erecting another monument or adding a plaque explaining the historical significance of the present one.
Greg Rieley, representing the Botetourt Genealogy Club, has used social media to gauge community reaction. “People have asked how the data collected will be compiled and/or presented,” he said.
A key question was the racial demographic of antebellum Botetourt County versus today. The 1850 census shows 15 percent of the county was Black. The 2019 Census shows that number has plummeted to 3.3 percent identified as Black and 1.5 percent as two or more races. “If this issue went to a referendum, then the minority opinion would not be represented. Regardless of what it says on the monument, and that it is meant to honor people who served in the war, it is still keenly associated with a cause which was to preserve slavery,” said Bowman.
Research provided by Ed McCoy showed fundraising for the monument started in Sept. 1901 and it was dedicated with much pomp and circumstance on Oct. 27, 1904.
The committee also formed three working groups to assist in its decision. The General History group is headed by Ed McCoy with Pam Binns, representing the Town of Fincastle, Sifford and Tanger. The Botetourt Schools and Home Schools group includes Chester Adams as head, with Mitch and Bobbie Bowman in that working group. Rieley chairs the Veterans and Slave Descendants group, which includes Harriet Francis, of the Daughters of Confederacy, Bernard Haynes with Countrywide League and Bill Price of the VFW Posts Daleville-Buchanan.
The Botetourt County Committee on Monuments and Memorials will hold a meeting on Thursday, October 8, 2020, at 3:30 p.m. at the Greenfield Education and Training Center, 57 S. Center Drive, Daleville, VA 24083.
The public is welcome to attend.