Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn contends she was within her right last week to order the removal of several statues from the Old House Chamber in the State Capitol building.
That may be true, but just because her office had the authority to relocate those objects doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. Certainly not when the emotional debate over Virginia’s Confederate history would be served by serious, substantive discussion and more citizen engagement.
Filler-Corn announced on Friday that she had ordered House Clerk Suzette Denslow to remove several Confederate artifacts from the Old House Chamber beginning Thursday night and concluding the next morning. Statues of Robert E. Lee and eight other Confederate leaders were among the items relocated to a storage facility.
The Old House Chamber is a time capsule of Virginia history. It’s where lawmakers voted to secede from the Union in 1861, where Lee accepted command of Confederate forces and where the Confederate Congress met while Richmond served as the capitol of the insurrection.
It’s generally been described as a museum for visitors, which is a fair assessment of the place. The items and figures depicted there are indelible parts of the commonwealth’s story, and Virginians need not be proud of that past to understand the value of preserving our history.
In that way, the items in the Old House Chamber are different than the Confederate monuments and memorials being removed from public squares in Richmond, Norfolk, Portsmouth and elsewhere.
The statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and the others were deliberately placed in public places as a means of reinforcing a power structure based on race, and many were erected in the post-Reconstruction era as Jim Crow laws established a system of segregation that would divide the commonwealth for generations.
That is why removing them is essential as a symbolic blow against oppression and inequality, and why whatever replaces them in our shared public spaces should be an accurate and inclusive reflection of our communities. It matters who we celebrate in the public square.
But few would suggest the same standard should be applied to what we include in museums. It seems counterproductive for the House speaker to remove those items when they explain to visitors what happened in that very room.
But the bigger issue is that these decisions shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. They shouldn’t happen in the dark of night and without warning. They should be part of a broad discussion throughout the commonwealth about how we tell our story as fairly and accurately as possible.
Consider, for instance, the recent discussion in Virginia Beach about the future of a Confederate monument located in the Municipal Center campus.
Council members invited the public to provide comment and met at the Convention Center in order to ensure citizens could participate while practicing social distancing. People on both sides of the issue, for and against removal, made their points.
At a June 10 rally in Portsmouth, before a protester was seriously injured by part of the Confederate monument torn down by the crowd, 73-year-old Vietnam veteran Joe Hooks spoke about the pain he felt seeing the monument every day, especially after he risked his life for his country.
Even those who argue the monument should remain unmoved would find the passion of his argument compelling and recognize the hurt he felt from having that statue in so prominent a place. Perhaps hearing that story would be a catalyst for change and healing.
Discussions such as these should be opportunities to foster greater understanding, respect for opposing views and tolerance for one another. It may be emotional and messy at times, but the process helps build stronger communities.
That’s the opportunity Filler-Corn squandered when she made her command decision last week. And it’s a shame that this chance to bring Virginians together will instead result in driving them further apart.
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