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West Virginia House Committee Clears Bill Protecting Confederate Monuments

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Perry Bennett
/
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, speaking in a meeting of the House Government Organization Committee on Monday, March 15, 2021.

A committee in the West Virginia House of Delegates advanced a bill to protect monuments, markers, places and namesakes honoring “historical military, civil rights, natural disasters or accidents, and Native American events, figures, and organizations.” But conversation Monday made it clear that most — if not all — of the attention was focused on protecting monuments honoring the Confederacy.

As passed by the House Government Organization Committee, House Bill 2174 would create a misdemeanor for removing, replacing, rededicating or disturbing a monument on any public property that honors a historical figure or event as outlined in the legislation.

The bill also would allow for a process for the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office to grant waivers under certain circumstances to allow for changes to be made to any monuments or namesakes.

The measure would protect the names of a wide swath of historical references found around the state. Discussion in committee Monday made it clear that those opposed to the bill see it as a way to protect monuments and places named after Confederate generals.

“I’m not aware of any efforts to take down statues of any of the other protected classes in the bill,” said Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. “Just because this bill doesn’t mention the Civil War or the Confederacy doesn’t mean it’s not the most important part of this bill.”

In fact, in a list of military conflicts, the measure makes reference to the Civil War as “the war between the States.”

On a voice vote, lawmakers rejected an amendment that would have clarified that monuments and places honoring military events would only protect those who fought for the United States.

Following protests over racial injustice last summer, debates reignited around the nation about whether to keep monuments honoring the Confederate Army up in public spaces.

That debate also returned to West Virginia during the summer of 2020, particularly over places honoring Gen. Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate soldier and slave owner born in present day Clarksburg, West Virginia.

While the Kanawha County Board of Education voted to remove Jackson’s name from a Charleston middle school, the Harrison County Commission rejected a motion to remove a statue of Jackson in front of the county courthouse in downtown Clarksburg.

A movement to remove a statue and a bust of Jackson from the West Virginia Capitol Complex also failed, as Gov. Jim Justice punted the issue to the Legislature — although a commission made up of the governor’s appointees has the final say, according to state code.

In a December meeting of that commission, members heard comments from the public about the Jackson monuments on the Capitol grounds, but took no action.

As Monday’s meeting of the House Government Organization Committee wound down, Jackson was again referenced by Democrats, including Del. Jim Barach, D-Kanawha.

Barach made mention of monuments honoring the Union Army near the Jackson statue on the Capitol grounds.

“This whole bill is about protecting the Civil War, particularly Stonewall Jackson statues. I just find it ironic [if you] walk from that statue 200 yards [there’s] a statue of someone who was trying to shoot those people,” Barach said. “I just think that we should make up our minds here. And since we were not a Confederate state, we should vote this bill down.”

But Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, argued otherwise.

“I understand there's some characterizations that are being made,” Foster said. “But what this bill really does is set forward a process for removing a statue. It says it should not be removed unless we go to the State Historic Preservation Society.”

The bill cleared the committee on a 19-6 vote along party lines, with all Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposed.


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