In Portsmouth, Virginia, city Councilman Dr. Mark Whitaker
has called on the city to solicit proposals to tear down a memorial to Virginians who served the Confederacy during the Civil War. The monument to the Confederate death is a prominent landmark in the downtown area of the city at the intersection of High and Court streets. The Norfolk Naval Yard is located in Portsmouth, which is part of the greater Hampton Roads metropolitan area in Norfolk County.
When Whitaker called for proposals on February 9, some of his colleagues said they would rather wait for a court decision on the monument. Whitaker said that this would not mean spelling out the payment for the monument’s removal but to merely determine the cost of the removal.
So far, the city estimates the cost to be approximately $105,000 in taxpayer money to erase the monument and statues. This does not include the cost of moving it, or re-erecting it elsewhere. The cost of repair the streets associated with the memorial would cost an additional $7000.
Virginia state law forbids the removal of a war monument or memorial. In the council chamber, Whitaker said of the removal, “It takes consciousness and courage for moral leadership.” Putting his money where his mouth is, Democrat Whitaker said he would put the entirety of his $23,000 salary as councilman towards the cost of removing the monument to the fallen. Whitaker did not get the majority on the council to request a proposal.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Psimas and Councilmen Danny Meeks and Bill Moody expressed objections to Whitaker’s plans. Moody wants to hold a referendum on removing the monument. For his part, Councilman Paige Cherry was of two minds. He said that while he does not like the monument, he said that “now is not the time” to remove it from sight. “We have a lot of turmoil; all this would do is add more to it,” Cherry said. He added that there is a plan by the city council to allow the court process to go forward.
However, Vice-Mayor Psimas and Councilman Moody reportedly said that the council had given former interim City Attorney Cheran Cordell permission to seek a court order for the removal. Councilman Curtis Edmonds said he agreed with Councilman Cherry. Saying that the council had already decided on the issue, “I want us to stand on what we said.”
It was shortly after nine black people were murdered by a deranged gunman at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015 that a movement began to remove the monument in Portsmouth. In South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War rang out in 1861, the state legislature later voted to end the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state capitol. A movement to remove other reminders of the Confederacy elsewhere in the South is afoot. For example, monuments in New Orleans to the Confederacy have been targeted. The Park and Recreation Board of Birmingham, Alabama, voted last July to remove that city’s Confederate Soldiers & Sailors monument.
The issue is being debated in much of the South in city councils and state legislatures where emotions about the Civil War and Reconstruction run deep and historical memory is kept alive.
“Don’t disgrace my grandfather or your grandfathers or these people’s grandfathers by allowing political correctness to come in this state and start destroying the history of this country,” so said Mike Williams, adjutant of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, at a hearing in the Alabama state legislature on Feb. 9. “It’s about Confederate monuments, but it’s also about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other famous Americans.”
Legislation sponsored by Alabama state Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, would eliminate the power municipalities have power to remove monuments commemorating "an event, a person, a group, a movement, or military service that is part of the history of the state." The bill would require cities to conduct a two-month process that would involve extensive public notices and hearings. The ultimate decision on removing monuments would lay with a state committee.
Allen said after the Feb. 9 meeting that putting the decision in the hands of the state would give the committee access to resources at the Alabama Historical Commission local governments may not have. “I think access to all the data and the people who understand the history is far better,” Allen said.
In addition, Kevin Mount of Verbena AL quoted a speech by a black Republican Mississippi legislator in 1890 – in the days when Mississippi was disenfranchising black voters – which he said was in defense of the Confederate flag. He noted a March, 1890 edition of the Pascagoula Democrat-Star that quoted the black legislator: “Confederate history should not be a white/black issue,” he said. “It wasn’t a white/black issue in 1860. It wasn’t a white/black issue in 1890.”
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