A small slice of Civil War history was on the ballot this month in Jefferson County, W.Va. Not officially, perhaps, but the issue lingered right below the surface of a spirited County Commission race. And now that incumbent Republican Peter Onoszko has been ousted by Democratic challenger Ralph Lorenzetti, a memorial plaque honoring Confederate soldiers looks like it will soon be removed as well.
How the plaque came to be placed on the county courthouse in 1986, some 121 years after the Civil War ended, is not fully understood.
But the push to take it down started last year after the violent white-supremacist marches and rallies in Charlottesville, which began as a protest of that city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. Following the Charlottesville riot, communities across the country called for Confederate statues to come down, and in many places — Baltimore, New Orleans, Austin, Gainesville, Fla. — they did.
In Jefferson County, six local African American women, all in their 60s and 70s, wrote a letter to the County Commission seeking the removal of the plaque from the courthouse.
“It is impossible to enter the courthouse to conduct business or to even vote without being taunted by its presence,” they wrote. “The plaque perpetuates division at all levels on a wider scale.”
The plaque, the size of a cookie sheet, is simple and, for some, easily overlooked. Placed near the courthouse entrance in Charles Town, it reads: “1861-1865: In honor and memory of the Confederate soldiers of Jefferson County, who served in the War Between the States. Erected by the Leetown Chapter #231 United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
The women, led by Linda Ballard, said they didn’t want a big fuss, they just wanted the plaque taken down. They noticed that there wasn’t a plaque for Union soldiers and there wasn’t anything marking the selling and trading of their enslaved ancestors in front of the courthouse. Why, they asked, should a plaque honor the side that fought to preserve slavery? And why was it placed there so recently?
Onoszko had voted to keep the plaque. Even as it emerged as an election issue, he insisted he was not concerned.
“I’m on the side of the people on this issue,” he told The Washington Post a year ago. “Not 100 percent of the people, but the voting majority.”
That analysis proved incorrect. On Election Day, Lorenzetti took 51 percent of the vote to Onoszko’s 42 percent, with an independent candidate scooping up the rest.
“The plaque definitely had some bearing in the election and was a big issue for some voters,” Lorenzetti said in an interview. “And it was a much bigger issue in the African American community.”
African Americans make up about 7 percent of Jefferson County’s 53,000 residents. Ballard and the women who pushed the commission to take action see the election result as vindication. Over the past year, they and their supporters continued to attend commission meetings. They held rallies and carried signs declaring, “No tributes to slavery.” Ballard has no doubt that their efforts helped lead to Onoszko’s defeat.
“I feel certain that our request influenced this change because that plaque had been up there since 1986, and Democrats as well as Republicans had left that plaque up there,” she said. “If we had not elevated the issue, it probably would continue to stay there.”
When Ballard and the other women first suggested removing the plaque last year, the county commissioners, four Republicans and one Democrat, listened to their appeal but were not swayed. They voted unanimously to keep the plaque in place. Onoszko, then the commission president, said the plaque was history and should stay, even if it represented a history not everyone liked.
But he went further, blaming efforts such as the one to remove the plaque on “a small radical minority among both white and black Americans who seek to undermine over a century and a half of progress toward reconciliation between regions of America and the races of America, creating harmful division and discord among our people and threatening to destroy our country.”
That didn’t sit well with Ballard, her friends and like-minded residents of the county. The issue festered and received extensive coverage in the following months in the local newspaper, the Spirit of Jefferson. Founded in 1844, before West Virginia’s creation, the paper wrote numerous editorials calling for the plaque’s removal.
After further hearings and public debate, two of the commissioners, Democrat Patsy Noland and Republican Jane Tabb, said they had changed their minds and would vote to remove the plaque. But Onoszko and Republicans Josh Compton and Caleb Wayne Hudson quashed that effort.
Following his election victory, Lorenzetti pledged again to join Noland and Tabb in voting to remove the plaque. “My view is it should be taken off and put in a proper historical place,” he said.
Onoszko acknowledges that the plaque controversy played a role but said in an interview it “was not that great a part.” He pointed to his support for building a controversial manufacturing plant in the county as the main reason he was ousted.
“The plaque was a minor issue, and my feeling is still that it’s historic and should stay up,” he said. “When you look at history, you have to look at it, warts and all.”
But Onoszko expects that the plaque will soon be removed.
“The plaque is going down,” he said. “I expect that as soon as they can vote on it, they will move it.”
Ballard said she’s looking forward to walking into the county courthouse without having to encounter the plaque.
“It’s not just an accomplishment, it’s a sense of freedom,” she said. “Our strength really came from our enslaved ancestors. We took action because of them. We were their voices.”
Ballard may not have to wait long to get her wish. In an interview, Noland said she plans to put the plaque issue on the commission’s agenda for its Nov. 29 meeting.