The mayor of Alexandria met with the president of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy for the first time last week, hoping to get her cooperation in moving a controversial Confederate statue from the middle of a busy Old Town intersection to the lawn of an adjacent historical museum.
But there is no sign that any such partnership will be forthcoming, and several state lawmakers say it is extremely unlikely that the City Council’s Sept. 17 vote to evict the “Appomattox” statue from its 127-year-old post will be successful.
“We shared our frankly different perspectives but in a cordial, friendly way,” Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) said of her meeting with UDC chapter President Deborah Mullins. “I respect her right to her opinion — I respect we have a different perspective on where the statue could be.”
The mayor would not say whether Mullins agreed to move the seven-foot bronze of a southern-facing Confederate soldier, which is owned by the Southern heritage group but located on city land. Mullins, in an email, declined to comment.
In 2009, she told The Washington Post, “What’s offensive to me might not be offensive to you, and vice versa. Everybody should be able to celebrate their heritage.” This week, she referred calls to the national headquarters of the organization, whose president, Pamela Trammell, did not return messages left for her.
But the group’s cooperation is just the first problem the city would have to solve to accomplish its goal of moving the monument, which the council voted to do on the same day it decided to rename the Alexandria portion of Jefferson Davis Highway.
Virginia law prohibits municipalities from moving war monuments or memorials. To move the statue, the city would have to get that law changed or rescinded — an unlikely prospect in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which tried this year to strengthen the existing prohibition, only to have that bill vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Alexandria officials said they will include a proposal to modify or eliminate the ban as part of their formal legislative package, which is typically completed in late November. But lawmakers who represent the city are not optimistic about the chances of moving the statue to the lawn of the Lyceum, Alexandria’s history museum, which is located on the same corner. The lawn is also owned by the city.
“I don’t think it’s a viable proposal, unless the Daughters of the Confederacy are willing to stand up and testify. I think it’s a non-starter,” said state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).
A spokesman for House Majority Leader William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said it would be “difficult to predict” how the city’s request would fare before the legislature.
The “Appomattox” statue has long been a source of controversy in this town, which was occupied by Union troops the day after Virginia seceded. Reportedly based on a drawing of an unarmed Confederate soldier observing the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, the statue depicts a soldier facing south, head bowed in deep contemplation.
It was erected in 1889, at the site where a local regiment mustered to beat a hasty retreat just ahead of the Union occupation, and was intended to honor the local Confederate war dead. About 100 names are inscribed on its granite base.
In 1890, the United Confederate Veterans persuaded the legislature to pass a law that said that “the monument shall perpetually remain as at present erected and located at the intersection of Prince and Washington Streets . . . [it] shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future council or other municipal power or authority.”
When a drunk motorist smashed into the statue and toppled it 98 years later, residents were divided about whether it should be restored.
Former City Council member Nelson E. Greene Sr., a black community leader, said at the time that the city should not re-erect the statue, and should view the accident as a sign that “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“Do you reckon that they’ll put it back?” one Lyceum volunteer asked another, according a 1988 Washington Post article about the accident.
“They better,” the reply came. “They’ll have an uprising if they don’t.”
That person was right. A few months later, the City Council voted to restore the statue. The city also built a median strip on Washington Street, south of the statue, to guide traffic around it.
Last year, there was a fatal shooting of nine people at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C. The man charged with the killing was earlier photographed with a Confederate flag. In the months since, states and municipalities throughout the nation have been reexamining their Confederate memorials.
In Alexandria, the council banned the flying of the Rebel flags by the city, which had been a tradition on Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
Feelings about the council’s latest decision remained raw last week. City clerk Jackie Henderson said the council had received “a couple dozen” phone calls and about 100 emails. Early Wednesday, someone posted a handwritten sign on the “Appomattox” statue that said: “Alexandria City Council Cowards!”