Of all the reckonings with icons of the Lost Cause that have gripped Virginia for the past two years — from Charlottesville deciding to melt down Robert E. Lee to Richmond loaning other bronze generals to a museum in California — this is a new twist, a sign of the enduring power of the Civil War’s legacy.
Officials at the state’s Department of Historic Resources said they are not aware of any other locality in Virginia exploring such a step. Opponents say giving control over a public site to a private heritage group sets an alarming precedent.
“The long-term implications are really far-reaching, because this group could do whatever it wanted with that piece of land,” said Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs. “The government would lose all control despite the fact that it’s right in the middle of the historic courthouse square.”
The lawyers group signed onto a letter to the county last week warning of possible legal action on behalf of the local chapter of the NAACP. Transferring the land to a pro-Confederate group sends “unquestionable messages that the Mathews County Board of Supervisors endorses white supremacy and supports the second-class status of Black people,” the lawyers wrote.
The letter has turned up the heat on an idea that has been kicking around in Mathews for months. Turnout is expected to be heavy for a public hearing Wednesday night on the general topic of transferring public property to private groups. The hearing originally had been scheduled to take up the statue specifically, but board members last month — in the face of fiery public discussion — decided to slow the process.
“Let me tell you something, the NAACP jumped the gun on this thing,” county supervisor Dave Jones said last week in an interview. There will be no vote Wednesday on what to do about the statue, he said.
But not everyone is convinced.
“We don’t know what action they could take,” said NAACP chapter president Edith Turner.
Confusion has built since last fall’s referendum, in a county of some 8,600 residents that’s roughly 8 percent Black. Even though the voters’ message was clear, and despite the fact that the statue has not been targeted by graffiti or other protest damage, some residents and county supervisors have been on a crusade to save it from any possible future calamity.
One day last week, Jones stood outside the old courthouse and said he “would never vote to move the monument from its place,” though that has not been an issue.
He denied that Wednesday’s hearing is even related to the statue, and said the flap over giving the site to preservationists is overblown. He pledged that he “will not vote to transfer that monument to the SCV” or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the two groups that erected it in 1912 and have offered to take it over this year.
But minutes later, Jones and Mathews County Board of Supervisors chair Paul Hudgins — who had joined him in the shade under a willow oak tree — were a bit more vague. Would they transfer ownership to some other group who might protect it where it stands?
“We can give ownership to anything, it isn’t no law against it,” Jones said.
“That’s a conversation to be had at a later date,” Hudgins said.
“That’s right,” Jones said.
Turner, the NAACP president, is Black and a teacher who was born and raised in Mathews County. She gives her age as “over 60,” and said she was in about fourth grade when the local schools were integrated. She attended Lee-Jackson Elementary, named for the Confederate generals.
Two years ago, Turner was proud when her daughter spearheaded an effort to rename the school. It’s now known as Mathews Elementary. In response, someone placed a giant Confederate flag on private property across the street.
Confederate battle flags wave by the roadway along several entrances to Mathews County, a fact that Turner said discourages friends and family who might want to visit. “But I feel comfortable here because I’m from here,” she said.
Renaming the school, though, was an unwelcome taste of change for some residents of Mathews who have looked with horror at statues coming down in other parts of the state.
Ben Richardson, 61, grew up in Mathews on property that’s been in his family since the 1700s. Like many in this countryside of marshes and creeks along the Chesapeake Bay, he spent most of his life on the water, on tugboats and oil tankers.
He had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War, he said, and for the Confederacy. The statue is not racism, it’s just history, he said. And the groups that erected it should own it and protect it.
“People just want to open up a can of worms,” Richardson said, sitting outside his Pudding Creek Carvings art shop in a “Good Vibes” T-shirt. “I think the statue ought to stay where it is … and the land, that should be deeded to them.”
The statue itself is the figure of a generic Civil War soldier atop a column. The base reads “Our Confederate soldiers” on one side, and “In memory of the soldiers and sailors of Mathews County Va.” on another.
It stands about 15 feet from the corner of the old courthouse, which anchors a square featuring historic buildings including a jail and a clerk’s office.
Several local residents said they had seldom paid much attention to the statue until 2017, after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when people supporting Confederate heritage began showing up around the statue to show support for it.
After 2020, when the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police provoked a national movement for racial justice, Confederate supporters would festoon the ground around the statue’s base with small Confederate battle flags.
Some in the county objected, and the board of supervisors warned that the flags couldn’t be placed in the ground because that was public property.
For a time, though, the statue itself was thought to belong to the SCV and UDC. Many of the Confederate statues around the state were placed about a century ago by those heritage groups, and a handful continue to be owned by them despite being located on public property.
In Alexandria, for instance, a Confederate statue was taken down at the request of the UDC and returned to the group for safekeeping.
According to research compiled by staffers at the Mathews Public Library, the county’s memorial was spearheaded by a group called the Mathews County Monument Association made up of seven members from the UDC and seven from the SCV, who raised money from the public to finance it.
But both of those local chapters died out or disbanded long ago, the research showed. Today’s groups were reconstituted in recent years, and the research found no evidence that the statue was ever passed on to them.
At last month’s board of supervisors meeting, a representative of the UDC submitted a letter that seemed to acknowledge the county’s ownership.
Neither the UDC nor members of the SCV could be reached for comment for this story. But two supporters spoke out strongly at the August meeting.
Bobby Dobson, who is a member of the county school board, blamed former governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, for stirring up trouble about monuments and said the fact that a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis is displayed vandalized and prone in Richmond’s Valentine museum is “a disgrace.”
Richmond’s statues fell. Now these sisters aim to lift up Black history.
“Now everybody seems like you want to remove” statues, Dobson said. Noting that the county’s referendum in support of the monument was nonbinding, he said the Mathews statue needs permanent protection. “God bless the fallen Southerners,” he concluded, “and God bless Robert E. Lee.”
Joey Taylor, president of the local chapter of the SCV, said his group wants to take ownership of the monument because “we believe that if this is not done then these people on the left will do their very best to destroy this because that’s what they want.”
Neither Dobson nor Taylor could be reached for comment.
Mathews County Administrator Ramona Wilson, who took office in April when the controversy was already in full swing, said in an interview that she remains uncertain about the status of the statue itself. “We don’t know who owns it at this point,” she said.
The next step hinges on Wednesday night’s public hearing. If residents fully support transferring public property to private interests, she said, the board will schedule a hearing on deeding the land under the statue.
If the public opposes the concept, she said, “I think then it’ll just go away.”
But Jones and Hudgins, the board members, made clear that the statue itself isn’t going anywhere.
The county is going to install video surveillance, Hudgins said.
“If they want to come try to tear it down, they got to go through us, and we’ll take all measures,” Jones said.
“This is not Richmond,” Hudgins said, “I can tell you that.”
Jones agreed. “This is not Richmond.”