If two local cities are to move forward with plans to remove confederate monuments located on public space, they will have to overcome a legal constitutional hurdle.
Last week amid protests calling for the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth to remove these monuments, both city mayors expressed agreement.
Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander, hours before a protest on Wednesday, August 16 at the base of a confederate monument in the downtown business district, called for it to be moved a few miles away to Elmwood Cemetery off Princess Anne Road.
The next day Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe called for the removal of a similar monument in that city to Cedar Grove Cemetery.
Referring to the August 12 Charlottesville protest that drew national attention, Alexander said, “I am troubled by the loss of life, especially the young paralegal who was standing up against bigotry, as well as the officers. There were neo-Nazis and other individuals without hoods, chanting ‘blood and soil,’ carrying torches chanting against Blacks and Jews and others. I won’t stand for it in Norfolk.”
Alexander said he had communicated with other city council members about the proposal to secure consensus and acquire the five votes needed to achieve his goal.
However, the language in Virginia code 15.2-1812 related to memorials for war veterans may slow down the action:
“A locality may, within the geographical limits of the locality, authorize and permit the erection of monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict, to include the following monuments or memorials for American wars.
– from the Algonquin War, War of 1812, civil war and others until the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. If such are erected, it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same.
“For purposes of this section, ‘disturb or interfere with’ includes removal of, damaging or defacing monuments or memorials, or, in the case of the War Between the States, the placement of Union markings or monuments on previously designated Confederate memorials or the placement of Confederate markings or monuments on previously designated Union memorials.”
Alexander said on Monday August 21 that Norfolk’s City Attorney has requested a legal clarification on the State Code and what the city can do from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.
Norfolk, like Portsmouth and Richmond, has a majority minority population.
“Plus, this is a different time … a different public square in this city politically and socially,” said Alexander, Norfolk’s first Black mayor. “We need a new streetscape to compliment the new buildings and infrastructure. I think we will be doing a courtesy to residents to move it.”
Alexander said a confederate statue which sits in Elmwood Cemetery once stood at Liberty and Main Street in Berkley, before it was taken down in 1977.
He said he and other leaders of the Beacon Light Civic League demanded that it be taken down and moved.
Councilman Paul Riddick said when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, that really put pressure on the city to move it.
Riddick said when the city did move it, it was stored in a warehouse of a prominent local business until it was resurrected in Elmwood Cemetery in 1987.
Governor McAuliffe, days after the Charlottesville violence, said in a statement the monuments had become flashpoints for hatred, division and violence. He said that while he may not be able to force their removal, he believed the legal and political path “is now clear.”
In Richmond, Mayor Levar Stoney opted to convene a commission to determine the future of the monuments in his majority Black city. But after Charlottesville, Stoney said he agrees they should go.
In a letter dated August 19 to Mayor McKinley Price and members of Newport News City Council, the Virginia State Unit of the SCLC and the Peninsula District SCLC called for the removal of the confederate monument in the Denbigh Section of Newport News known as “Johnny Rebel.”
In a letter from Andrew Shannon the local group’s President, he urged that it be re-placed with new monuments to include Frederick Douglass, Rev. Dr. Curtis W. Harris, Jr. and Rev. Dr. Marcellus L. Harris, Jr., three civil rights leaders.
Standing before the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors, Valerie Butler, representing the county chapter of the NAACP, said she had received several phone calls from residents regarding the violence in Charlottesville last weekend.
She said they expressed concerns that something similar would happen soon in Isle of Wight. She asked the Board to discuss the matter and suggested taking down the monument in front of the county’s government building.
By Leonard E. Colvin