West Virginia seceded from Virginia 157 years ago to join the Union and reject the Confederate States of America. While Confederate monuments have been toppled or ordered down elsewhere across the country, they still stand in West Virginia.
There are 21 statues, memorials and other markers honoring Confederate generals and soldiers in the state — on state park resorts, schools, elsewhere according to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Given West Virginia’s split from its neighbor and, thus, the Confederacy, memorials to those who fought for the South serve as a historical paradox.
Kevin Levin, a Boston-based historian and educator who focuses on public memory and the Civil War, notes that the United Daughters of the Confederacy — a group whose goal was to memorialize the southern army — gave some of the monuments to communities in West Virginia during the Jim Crow era of segregation and the civil rights movement.
“We always need to remember that the monuments always reflect the values of the community — the individuals or organizations that erected them and dedicated them originally,” Levin said.
Most of the efforts to remove monuments have been in larger cities with more diverse populations. But, Levin said, even though statues remain intact here, the fact that West Virginians are even discussing the issue is remarkable.
“I think where to look and one way to measure the progress — if you want to call it that — is to look at the places that are even debating this issue,” he explained
Much of the conversation here has focused on Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate general who was born in 1824 in present-day Clarksburg, West Virginia. Jackson, who owned six slaves and is one of the most recognizable figures of the Civil War, is memorialized in more than a dozen states.
The Harrison County Commission last week rejected a motion to remove a statue of Jackson that stands in front of the courthouse in downtown Clarksburg.
Many who attended the commission meeting — either in person or virtually — argued that removing the statue of Jackson would be an effort to “erase history.”
“Where do we let it end? When do we let it end? Are we going to be like everybody else and see people burn them because of opinion — because you don't like this or you don't like that?” Larry Starkey asked.
He also wondered whether other controversial figures who are honored in the state should face similar criticism.
“Should we change Robert C. Byrd’s name because he was in the KKK at one time? Should we change the Italian festival cause Mussolini fought against the United States government. That's all foolish. You can't change history,” Starkey said.
But there were others who called for the statue of Gen. Jackson to be removed, including two men who identified themselves as distant relatives.
“If you want to talk about whose birthright this is and whose opinion should be heard, it seems like I have some qualifications here,” said Colin Grant Jackson, who identified himself as a direct descendant of the Confederate general. “I personally believe that this statute does not belong in front of a building that is supposed to be devoted to impartial justice.”
Despite the commission voting against removal, some locals and others concerned about the message the statue sends say they’ll continue to fight to bring it down. An ongoing campaign is lobbying members of the commission to reconsider the issue.
In Charleston, a bust and statue of Jackson are on display on the grounds of the state Capitol. A middle school there, which has the state’s highest percentage of black students, bears his name.
Bishop Wayne Crozier, of Charleston, has been part of the effort to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
“There is a difference between remembering history and revering history. No one is saying ‘forget it,’” Crozier said. “But we don't have to act — we don't have to make heroes out of monsters.”
Discussions are ongoing about possibly renaming the school after influential black educator Booker T. Washington, historian Carter G. Woodson or NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
Crozier said he focused on the school because renaming it would be a tangible change that would have lasting impact. He said too often protests of racial injustice do not bring about significant progress.
“A lot of times, I'll just sort of wonder, Okay, what happens after the protest is over? I think sometimes the power structure, just sort of [says] ‘Okay, we'll wait until this blows over, and we return to the status quo,’” he said.
While activists push for a more sensitive name for the school, the Kanawha County Board of Education says they will consider the issue at its July 6 meeting. But some board members are pushing back on the idea to rename Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
“I feel like maybe this is a knee jerk option, you know, with all the craziness and the sadness has happened in our country, that this is a bigger push,” school board member Becky Jordon said. “Because, I mean, we've heard mumblings of you know, some people over the years wanting to change them while but it never got any energy, never really got moving.”
Some who support Jackson memorials argue that he should be judged by his “respectable” deeds such as conducting a Sunday School for enslaved black people and encouraging literacy. The American Civil War Museum has said these facts serve as “a foundation for great misunderstanding” in allowing Confederate heritage activists to attempt to distance the South’s cause away from slavery.
College of Southern Maryland professor of history and West Virginia native Dr. Cicero Fain said viewing figures like Jackson in such a way overlooks a fundamental question in the current debate.
“The barometer by which one should judge a slaveholder is ‘Did he make the ultimate sacrifice and a shift away from the economic imperative — and instead embrace a moral imperative?’ And he didn’t,” Fain said.
Unlike monuments in other places, those erected in West Virginia have seen no reported vandalism. Fain said he believes statues here will remain standing unless there are dramatic systemic changes, especially with high-ranking public officials mostly mum on the matter.
“I don't think the state population is sufficient, the Black population is sufficient, to really bring about significant change without the power — of course, corporate, education, as well as government — bringing about some real hard conversations,” Fain said.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice said whether the memorials at the state Capitol should remain are a matter for the Legislature to consider. He avoided saying whether he wants to see them taken down. But state code gives a commission, which the governor partially appoints, authority to decide on the future of statues on Capitol grounds.
“I don't think I have any right to make a decision. I think that's a legislative right,” Justice said. “From the standpoint of my personal beliefs, I don't feel like — that — anyone should feel uncomfortable here. This is our capitol. This is our state. This is our people.”
As for monuments located elsewhere, those decisions are in the hands of local governments, boards or, maybe — albeit unlikely — protesters themselves.