For more than a century, the statue of a Confederate soldier has stood a solitary guard on the courthouse grounds in downtown Leesburg, his bronze rifle at the ready. Now, amid a growing national debate over Confederate symbols on public property, the Loudoun County branch of the NAACP is advocating for a more “balanced” depiction of the county’s turbulent Civil War history.
The local NAACP’s efforts come amid mounting backlash against displays of the Confederate flag, after the June 17 fatal shooting of nine people at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. Last week, South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove the Confederate flag that has long flown on the statehouse grounds, and officials in several other states have announced plans to phase out Confederate flag symbols from state-sponsored license plates.
Although some have called for the Leesburg monument’s removal, it is protected by a Virginia statute that prohibits local authorities or individuals from removing, damaging or defacing an established war memorial. But Loudoun NAACP President Phillip Thompson said it isn’t appropriate to have the statue serve as the sole representation of Loudoun’s Civil War history on the storied property.
On July 18, the NAACP plans to hold a “Rally for Remembrance” outside the courthouse to honor other Civil War figures whose history unfolded there: the slaves who were bought and sold on the courthouse steps, the Union soldiers who died liberating the county, and the African American men who faced trial for helping to free slaves through the Underground Railroad.
Those people deserve proper memorials, too, Thompson said.
“The [Confederate] statue will continue to loom out there . . . so we need to have some other markers also, to provide some sort of balance,” he said. “In this county, there’s not a whole lot of plaques dealing with African American history, and that deserves recognition.”
Thompson said it is important to consider the historical context and placement of any Confederate memorial; those that were created soon after the war or erected in cemeteries or on battlegrounds, “I’m not as offended by that,” he said. “I have more of a feel for that.”
The Leesburg statue was placed on the public courthouse grounds in 1908, well after the Civil War ended in 1865. The artist who created the monument, Frederick William Sievers, made several other sculptures of Confederate icons. including a monument to Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Richmond and a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg.
According to a county Web site, the statue “serves as a memorial to the many Rebel soldiers who died fighting for the cause in which they believed.”
Thompson believes the monument was intended to convey a deliberate message.
“It was built 43 years after the war is over, during a time when Jim Crow laws were being reintroduced and there was segregation,” he said. “It would be different if you had one Confederate soldier facing a Union soldier. Then you’ve got balance . . . but here, they were sending a message: ‘The Confederacy is still here, this is how we feel about it.’ That message is no longer relevant today.”
Thompson said he anticipates a strong turnout at the rally, which will begin outside the courthouse at 10:30 a.m. The activists plan to leave three wreaths on the property, he said, one to honor the slaves who were auctioned on the courthouse steps, one for the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War and one to commemorate the property’s significance as a nationally designated Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site.
He said he hopes the temporary wreaths will ultimately be replaced by permanent memorials, a possibility that he will soon discuss with Loudoun officials.
Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York told The Washington Post in an e-mail that he had asked county staff members to contact the local NAACP branch to discuss the group’s proposal for additional memorials, and “to share with them the process that any request would go through for consideration,” he said.
York, who said he would not support the removal of the Confederate monument “regardless of Virginia statute,” noted that anyone who proposes a new memorial or statue is also responsible for its funding.
Thompson said he thinks that the upcoming rally will help mobilize support for the cause, adding that he was pleased that local officials have contacted him to arrange a discussion.
“They do want to talk about this issue,” he said. “That’s a good start.”