Little Charles City County is about to play a big role in the public debate over the future of Virginia’s monuments to the Confederacy.
The Charles City Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to ask voters in November whether they favor removing a Confederate monument that was erected next to the courthouse in 1900. The obelisk, honoring Confederate soldiers as “Defenders of Constitutional Liberty and Right to Self Government,” was tagged with graffiti on July 2 as demonstrators protested police treatment of Blacks and called Confederate monuments symbols of white supremacy.
The vote in the county of about 7,000 residents would be among the first such referendums in Virginia since a new law took effect July 1. It allows local governments to ask voters their opinion before removing Civil War monuments or taking other actions that would accurately reflect the context the statues were erected in — the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, with its racially discriminatory laws.
Charles City County Administrator Michelle Johnson said whatever the outcome of the advisory referendum is, “that’s what the board is going to do.”
Charles City Supervisor Lewis Black III said, “I work for the people, so I was acting with a vote for referendum to let them decide what to do with the monument.”
Tazewell County supervisors also have voted to put a referendum on the November ballot regarding a Confederate statue in front of that county’s courthouse, according to WVVA, a television station in Bluefield, W.Va.
Floyd County supervisors have not yet decided whether to seek a November referendum on the Confederate statue at that county’s courthouse, according to The Floyd Press. Floyd supervisors next meet Aug. 11, three days before the county’s deadline to get the question on the November ballot.
In Charles City, Black had been looking at other options for the community to consider what to do with the monument, donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated a little more than eight years after the lynching of an African American man on the courthouse grounds in 1892.
The board adopted one of those options by creating a citizens committee to talk about the racial history of Charles City, a rural county that includes 5,200 registered voters.
The Committee on Racial Equity will be led by a trio of leaders from three different communities in Charles City — Chickahominy Tribe Chief Stephen Adkins, representing Native Americans; Yvonne Smith-Jones, an educational consultant and former planning commissioner representing African Americans; and Charles Carter, owner of historic Shirley Plantation, representing the white community.
“We’re trying to do them together,” said Black, one of two African Americans on the three-person Board of Supervisors. “Even if the referendum doesn’t go in favor of removing the monument, there’s still a committee there to help the community heal.”
In the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, Charles City adopted the slogan “Four Centuries, Three Cultures, Two Rivers in One County” to reflect the cultures of the county, established in 1613 between the James and Chickahominy rivers.
Johnson, the county administrator, said the three leaders would develop a framework for the committee’s work and then invite the public for a series of meetings to talk about racial and cultural issues in the county.
“It’s not just focusing on the monuments, but racial equity across the county,” Johnson said Thursday.
The vote came as a happy surprise for Kevin Sullivan, a member of the electoral board who lives near the courthouse and has pushed for a referendum to decide the fate of the monument.
“You have a chance to make history,” Sullivan said he told the board.
He said he left the meeting before the vote because of concerns about potential exposure to the coronavirus and didn’t learn the outcome until Wednesday morning.
“I’m really happy they decided to take it to a referendum,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s wonderful that the people of Charles City are going to have input on something that important to everybody in the community.”
Johnson said the board’s decision to seek an advisory referendum reflected an “overwhelming response” by the community in favor of putting the issue to voters. She said response came by emails, telephone calls and direct conversations with community leaders.
“My board says they work for the people so let them decide,” she said.
Board Chairman Bill Coada declined to comment on the decision. Supervisor Gilbert Smith did not return requests for comment.
The county will petition the Charles City Circuit Court to put the issue on the ballot for the election on Nov. 3. The deadline for putting the question on the ballot is Aug. 14.
At 244, Virginia has the highest number of Confederate symbols in the nation, according to 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Most of Virginia’s Confederate monuments went up after Reconstruction ended in 1877. Most were raised sometime between 1880 and the 1920s, an era in which Virginia effectively disenfranchised almost all African American voters and enacted laws enforcing racial segregation throughout public life.
Other communities, including Richmond, have taken down Confederate monuments in response to Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd at the end of May. Protesters have toppled some monuments, including one to Confederate President Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
But Charles City would be the first to ask voters.
“This is another way we’re unique,” Johnson, the county administrator, said.