It’s a Memorial, Not a Racist Ideology

by Carol J. Bova

Accounts from lawyers, reporters, pundits and other outsiders have severely distorted the debate over the Confederate memorial in Mathews County.

To The Washington Post, the controversy is about the ”enduring power of the Civil War’s legacy.”

To the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs and Wilkie, Farr & Gallagher, LLP, writing on behalf of the local NAACP, it’s an endorsement of white supremacy. “Confederate monuments were intended to assert that white supremacy would remain a dominant force of social control.”

To Mathews families whose ancestors never came home from the war, the monument in front of the county courthouse provides an enduring connection to their ancestors – a love and commemoration of family. The monument is not a political statement. 

The controversy originated with a proposal before the Mathews Board of Supervisors to deed the land underneath the statue to a private preservation group. The County neither commissioned nor paid for the memorial. It did allow its placement on the corner of the Courthouse Green in 1912 because, at that time, there were no paved roads in the County, and many were impassable in bad weather. The business district was centered near the Courthouse Green, so when families came to shop, the location of the memorial was accessible to pay respect to the Mathews war dead.

Many families never knew where their relatives who died in the war were buried. After the devastation of the war on Mathews County through Union raids, there was no money for personal memorials or gravestones at home. When the country’s first recession hit in 1873 after the change to the gold standard, the stock market crashed and banks and businesses failed across the country, and for the first time in the country’s history, there weren’t enough jobs for people willing to work. In 1893-1900, recession came again, with more business and bank failures. Mathews citizens survived with farming and on the water. It wasn’t until 1906 that enough financial recovery occurred for Mathews citizens to think of erecting a memorial to the war dead.

The Mathews County Monument Association, the Lane-Diggs Camp of the Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy, worked until 1912 to collect enough money for the Soldiers and Sailors memorial. The groundbreaking ceremony described the purpose “as the first work towards commemorating and perpetuating the memory and bravery of the sons of old Mathews who wore the gray from 1861 to 1864.”

In our modern era of reimagining, historical statements are reinterpreted by some to say things never expressed or intended. For example, The D.C. lawyers said, “By analogy, the decision to deed public land and the monument to pro-Confederacy groups sends the unquestionable messages that the Mathews County Board of Supervisors endorses white supremacy and supports the second-class status of Black people.”

No. That is a false analogy. Just as Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas joined, in Pleasant Grove City vs. Summum …cited Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677 (2005), that displays of the Ten Commandments had been construed by the Court as “having an undeniable historical meaning” and thus did not attempt to establish a religion, so then the display of a memorial to Confederate war dead has an equally undeniable historical meaning of commemorating their memory. The memorial and communications about it, public and private, never celebrated white supremacy or the institution of slavery or implied the second-class status of Black people as the letter writers said.

Did such activities occur in other venues? Sadly, they did. But in all the documentation about the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, the focus was on remembering Mathews citizens who died in war.

The county’s documents supporting the National Historic Register Status of the Courthouse Green and the Courthouse District show the meaning has not changed since 1912. Both documents refer to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and the others also placed on the Green, a Revolutionary War veteran’s monument and a World War I cannon, as creating “spaces for reflecting on the contributions of Mathews citizens to past military conflicts and national pride. These significant additions to the district’s cultural landscape also emphasized the historic nature of the community and the desire to remember and preserve the past for future generations.”

The pattern of recognizing the military war dead of Mathews continued with a monument at the former high school in 1953 that was rededicated in 2003 at the new courthouse location in Liberty Square. It now names those who died in World Wars I and II, South Korea, and South Vietnam.

The main arguments in the D.C. lawyers’ letter center on the display of Confederate flags which they say in paragraph 1, “creates a hostile and unwelcoming environment,” in paragraph 3, is viewed “as a racist symbol,” and paragraph 7 “[T]o display Confederate flags… is a form of racial steering that violates the Fair Housing Act.”

The Washington Post quoted Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs who said, “The government would lose all control despite the fact that it’s right in the middle of the historic courthouse square.” This was typical of comments that ignore the fact the issue of flags has already been addressed.

The Mathews supervisors asked the Sons of Confederate Veterans to stop placing the small stick flags around the monument two months ago, and none have been placed since then. For the future, as the chairman of the board said at the September 21 meeting, deed restrictions could be used in a property transfer. One such would likely be that no Confederate flags or banners could be displayed at the memorial, or ownership would revert to the county.

There is precedent for this in the transfer of property from the county to the Mathews Land Conservancy where deed restrictions stated, “[S]hould a court of competent jurisdiction find that the Conservancy failed to comply with the Conservation Easement in a material way, then a portion of the Property shall revert to and become the property of the County in fee simple ownership.”

Supervisor Melissa Mason said on April 26, 2022, “My opinion has been, and I think I’ve shared this previously, that some form of statue, recognition, should be given to African Americans of Mathews County.”

In response, the board offered to make a similar plot of land on the historic Courthouse Green available for Mason to work with a group willing to put up such a memorial. Mason herself made the motion “to delineate the property to be conveyed to the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, and to delineate a second piece to give homage to the African American Veterans of Mathews County who died in the war, not specific to any war.” The motion, seconded by Dave Jones, was unanimously approved by the Board.

No group has come forward to accept the offer of land for an African-American veterans memorial.