It also came the same week as major steps were taken toward removing two prominent Confederate symbols elsewhere in the state. A judge ruled Tuesday that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) can take down a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from state-owned land in Richmond, though the governor must wait until any appeal is resolved. And on Thursday, the Virginia Military Institute's Board of Visitors voted to remove its tribute to Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
Representatives for the Virginia Flaggers declined to be interviewed. But in a statement, the group — which says it has placed dozens of Confederate flags along roadways around Virginia, and recently set out to make sure it has one flying in every Virginia county — said it is entertaining offers from nearby landowners to host the flag.
“The Commonwealth has suffered some serious setbacks in the past few months, and this is a major one, but it will in NO WAY impede our work or change our course,” the group’s statement said, noting that it had “assembled a team of men and respectfully retrieved the 20’ x 30’ flag in a brief ceremony” Wednesday. The group also referred to Northam as “the blackface governor” and said he was “destroying the Commonwealth.”
“We are comforted in the knowledge that for 6½ years, she flew proudly and defiantly, and in the face of some of the most challenging times for Southerners here in occupied Virginia,” the group added, asserting that it “was an encouragement to millions who caught a glimpse of her.”
But Northam and civil rights activists said the removal of the flag and steps toward evicting the other once-mighty symbols were signs of Virginia’s swift progress and rejection of racism.
“This is part of what building a more perfect union looks like — Virginia is reckoning with the past and moving toward a more equitable and inclusive Commonwealth. That’s a good thing,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, said the Virginia Flaggers represent a fading ideology, even if they follow through with pledges to add flags elsewhere.
“It’s like mushrooms. It’ll probably just pop up somewhere else. This is how they do it,” Schmidt said. “The thing is, what’s happening with this cultural change in Virginia — the former capital of the confederacy — is fewer and fewer people are on board with valorizing the Lost Cause.”
Schmidt, who co-founded the group Monumental Justice Virginia, helped push for major changes by the General Assembly and Northam earlier this year, including overturning a century-old law that served to prevent local governments from removing Confederate memorials. The move against the Jackson statue at VMI, which is wrestling with accusations of racism on campus, is another encouraging sign, she said.
“The entire point of the Lost Cause, after Reconstruction, kind of building up this ideology of valorizing the former confederacy . . . was so it wouldn’t be marginalized in memory,” Schmidt said. But that’s what’s happening ever more swiftly in Virginia, she said.
Although “some folks are kind of doubling down, tripling down, it’s just receding to an ever-smaller, more marginal set of folks,” Schmidt said.
While many local residents celebrated the flag’s removal, they also were preparing for another fight.
The Stafford County Board of Supervisors next month is scheduled to consider a proposal that would limit the height of flagpoles in the community of 153,000 residents to 45 feet on commercial or industrial property and 35 feet on residential land — effectively cutting in half any future efforts to erect a symbol that has been stitched into Virginia’s identity for nearly 160 years.
Gary Holland, a member of the local NAACP chapter who has been involved in previous efforts to have the flag removed, predicted “a very large turnout,” for the Nov. 17 vote.
“We certainly are going to have a lot of folks there the day of the vote to make sure our voices are heard,” he said.
The Virginia Flaggers said it is planning to fight the ordinance.
VDOT said its interest is in moving cars more smoothly, and an agency spokeswoman did not address a question on the flag’s symbolism. In a statement, VDOT said it is acquiring 10 parcels beside northbound I-95, north of exit 133, including the one with the flag.
“These projects seek to reduce I-95 congestion and driver delay in the Fredericksburg area,” the department said.
Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.