For more than a century, Virginia has designated a day in January to honor two military leaders from its secessionist past. As in previous years, most state offices will close Friday for Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates Confederate generals — and native Virginians — Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
But Confederate history’s grip on official Virginia is not as ironclad as it used to be. Although the holiday remains in place, a growing number of cities and counties across the commonwealth have chosen in recent years not to recognize it.
Lynchburg, Norfolk, Newport News and Hampton are among the cities that don’t observe the holiday. Charlottesville stopped in 2016, Blacksburg in 2017. Even Richmond, Virginia’s capital and the capital of the South for most of the Civil War, doesn’t shut down its city government for Lee-Jackson Day. A number of counties, including Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun, have also taken a pass on the day.
“I think it is certainly dying on the vine,” said U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat whose congressional district encompasses much of southeastern Virginia. As a state senator in 2016, McEachin introduced a measure to end Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday and instead make Election Day a holiday. The proposal was voted down in committee on party lines, but McEachin said he would not be surprised to see the General Assembly revisit the issue.
He is succinct in his reasoning for not honoring Lee and Jackson.
“My preference would be that we not celebrate their lives as they were basically in rebellion against the Union,” he said.
This year’s holiday will be the first Lee-Jackson Day celebration since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in August to protest the city’s planned removal of a Lee statue from a downtown park. The Unite the Right rally sparked violent confrontations with counterprotesters and led to three deaths and many injuries.
Wes Bellamy, the Charlottesville City Council member who led the effort to remove the Lee statue — and later a Jackson statue — said he doesn’t think any municipality should celebrate men who were slave owners and who fought to preserve slavery.
“It’s actually mind-boggling to me that people don’t understand just how disrespectful and flat-out wrong celebrating that day is to so many different people,” Bellamy said. “It just shows that on the one hand, we still have a very long way to go.”
As much as Bellamy wants the holiday to disappear immediately, Frank Earnest wants it to remain in place forever. Earnest is a member of the Virginia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an association formed in 1896 for male descendants of those who fought for the South, and is a staunch supporter of the holiday. A resident of Virginia Beach, Earnest has traveled across the state trying to keep Confederate monuments from being removed and fighting perceptions about the Confederate cause that he says are misconstrued or misunderstood.
Earnest blames the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville for damaging the efforts of his group to preserve Confederate markers and monuments.
“The Sons of Confederates have nothing to do at all with whatever those people are, Nazis, whatever they call themselves,” he said. “Those idiots did us more harm than anyone. Believe me, if anyone didn’t want them there, we’re the ones who didn’t want them there. That has nothing to do with General Lee or our heritage.”
Earnest regards Lee and Jackson as heroes who sacrificed everything for their state. But even as he rallies to keep Lee-Jackson Day a holiday, he recognizes it is imperiled. And he worries that Virginia — which is chockablock with towns, schools, buildings and roads named for Confederate leaders — will soon be bogged down renaming all of them. He’s pushing back even as he recognizes the debate is pressing forward in the commonwealth and the country.
“This has gotten so much bigger than just Virginia,” he said. “The only thing that’s going to save Lee-Jackson Day, memorials and everything else is when the country itself realizes that if you start this purge of history, it has no logical conclusion.”
The history of the Lee-Jackson holiday is tangled. Virginia’s General Assembly designated Jan. 19, Lee’s birthday, as a holiday in 1890, according to Brent Tarter, a retired historian with the Library of Virginia. In 1904, the Assembly made the holiday Lee-Jackson Day, adding Jackson, who was born Jan. 21.
In 1978, the General Assembly, pushed by L. Douglas Wilder — who was then a state senator and later became governor — created a state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which was celebrated on Jan. 1. Six years later, in a move that baffled many observers, the Assembly voted to honor all three men on the third Monday in January and called it Lee-Jackson-King Day in tribute to the “defenders of causes.” Martin Luther King Day was first observed as a federal holiday in 1986, but it wasn’t until 2000 that the Assembly detached Lee-Jackson Day from the King holiday.
Mississippi and Alabama are the only states that continue to celebrate a holiday honoring Lee and King on the same day. Arkansas lawmakers voted last year to end the dual holiday and honor Lee on a separate day that was not a state holiday.
Nowhere has the battle over Lee-Jackson Day played out more visibly than in Lexington, Va., where a parade has been held by the Sons of Confederate Veterans for the past 15 years to honor the men. Lexington is home to the burial sites of Lee and Jackson, and it has become a pilgrimage destination for some whose ancestors fought for the South.
But last year, the parade plans were upended by a local group, the Community Anti-Racism Effort, which obtained a permit to hold a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade at the same time and location as the Confederate group.
“We were a group of concerned citizens who were fed up with them coming into Lexington,” said Reginald A. Early, spokesman for the anti-racism group. “It felt like what they were doing was a misrepresentation of what Lexington is about. Ours is a community concerned about racial justice and equality for all people.”
But this year, the Confederate supporters will hold their parade as scheduled and the anti-racism group will have its event on Monday, the King holiday.
Despite the ongoing controversy over the name and implications of honoring Lee and Jackson, there are no signs that state political leaders are interested in addressing the holiday right now. Although there is no bill in the offing, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, whose inauguration is scheduled for Saturday, would sign such legislation if the General Assembly approved it, an official in the incoming administration said. Passing such legislation might be a hard sell, particularly for representatives from more conservative districts.
“You’d certainly never establish such a holiday anymore, but whether you could undo one, I don’t know,” Tarter, the state historian, said. He suggests that legislatures avoid naming future holidays after people.
“You’re only going to piss people off when you get rid of the holiday,” he said. “I’ve always thought naming a holiday after a person was idolatrous.”