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Virginia county poised to take unusual step to preserve Confederate statue

The Mathews County Confederate Monument outside the 1830 courthouse in Mathews County, Va. The county board of supervisors plans to vote to deed the land under the statue to a private group in an effort to keep the statue up. (Gregory S. Schneider/The Washington Post)

The Mathews County Board of Supervisors is moving ahead with unusual plans to deed the public land under a Confederate statue on the historic courthouse green to a private preservation group, aiming to prevent any future residents from taking it down.

The county has called a special public hearing for Tuesday night at the local high school as it prepares to transfer the property. It was unclear whether a final vote is also planned for Tuesday, but the board has already drafted a deed and voted to waive county subdivision rules to allow it to carve out a 21-by-22-foot plot of public land under the statue.

Supervisors have been exploring the step all year as a novel way of protecting Confederate heritage at a time when other localities around Virginia and the South are removing statues as symbols of racism. An isolated community of farms and fishing villages along the Chesapeake Bay at the tip of Virginia’s Middle Peninsula, Mathews has about 8,600 residents, about 8 percent of whom are Black.

A Virginia county maneuvers to protect a Confederate statue at its courthouse

The local chapter of the NAACP has threatened a lawsuit over any effort to transfer the property, and some residents have spoken out against the idea of giving public land to a private group — let alone protecting a Confederate monument in perpetuity. Officials with the state Department of Historic Resources said they are not aware of any other locality in Virginia considering such a step.

“There is no public mandate for such an unprecedented and irreversible transfer,” county commonwealth’s attorney Tom C. Bowen III wrote in a letter to the Post-Gazette newspaper and also posted on Facebook. Bowen said he was speaking as a private citizen, not in his official capacity. “The property should not be transferred to a private corporation in which the [board of supervisors] and the public do not have input.”

Confederate memorials around the state have faced a variety of fates since the General Assembly voted in 2020 to allow communities to take them down. Several have been preserved in place — a handful of those because they still belong to the organization that donated them decades ago. But the land on which they stand remains public.

Albemarle County donated its statue to a Shenandoah Valley battlefield. Richmond has given about a dozen statues to the its Black History Museum, which has loaned one to the city’s Valentine museum and several others to an art museum in California. Charlottesville voted to give its statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee to a museum to melt down and turn into new artwork.

Last year, a Mathews County referendum on whether to remove its statue found more than 80 percent of voters in favor of leaving it in place. Despite that show of support, Confederate heritage groups and the four White members of the five-member board of supervisors declared that the monument was under siege by changing public attitudes.

“I think all of us here would’ve liked to entertain the idea that we could just leave it just like it sits, go back to what we used to call normal,” board chairman Paul Hudgins said during a Nov. 22 meeting. “That would be all well and good if the monument wasn’t under attack.”

In recent weeks, supervisors had the county install a surveillance camera aimed at the statue, a generic figure of a soldier atop a column, which has not been defaced by protesters. The live feed now airs on a video screen in the 1830 courthouse, providing a real-time look at the monument that stands a few feet outside the building as the board conducts its business.

At a fiery public hearing in September, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans monitored the door of the courthouse and let members of the public in or out.

County supervisors said at that time that they would not deed the monument to a Confederate heritage group. Chapters of the SCV and the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the monument in 1912, but those chapters have long since gone defunct.

A modern chapter of the SCV, which had rallied to protect the monument in the aftermath of 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, came forward earlier this year and offered to take ownership. That provoked a public outcry and the threat of legal action from the NAACP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.

The board moved forward anyway, commissioning an official survey of the property. Late last month, the board called a special meeting to take up whether to waive a county subdivision ordinance that requires property to be a larger size before it can be carved into smaller lots.

Just a handful of residents turned up for the hastily called Nov. 22 meeting. With little discussion, the board voted 4-1 to waive the ordinance — the lone Black member voted against but did not comment — and only then opened up the topic for public debate.

“I don’t really understand everything that just happened here,” county resident Sharon Dequaine told the panel. “If this is a decision to be made it should be put on a referendum for all citizens to agree or disagree. It is, after all, our common property.”

Statue debate provokes fiery defense of Confederacy in Virginia's Mathews County

The draft deed prepared by county officials would convey the property for $10 to a group called Mathews War Memorial Preservation Inc. That group was registered with the State Corporation Commission in mid-September by David M. “Sonny” Fauver, a county resident and member of the SCV who has often spoken in favor of protecting the monument.

Fauver did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The draft deed contains restrictions on how the statue should be maintained: no overgrown vegetation; no Confederate flags — only U.S., state and county flags are allowed; no building on the plot, though a fence is permitted; the monument may not be removed.

In addition, the private group is required to provide security for the site and “shall protect the Monument from vandalism or defacement.”

County administrator Ramona Wilson and members of the board of supervisors did not respond to requests for comment.

But in the Nov. 22 meeting, supervisor Mike Walls said the people who spoke against deeding the statue were proof that it is under threat.

“Exactly what we’ve heard here today is the reason why we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” he said.

“It’s part of our history,” Hudgins, the chairman, said at the same meeting. “So if you don’t like our history you got a right not to like it. Just because you don’t like it don’t mean we’re going to go back and change our history here in Mathews County.”