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West Virginia Republicans seek to criminalize removal of Confederate statues

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2 days ago Zack Harold
a statue of a man standing next to a tree: Photograph: Ty Wright/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Nearly 158-years after its founding West Virginia – a state forged from the fires of America’s civil war – remains stuck between north and south. Now lawmakers are considering a bill that would protect Confederate monuments from removal or renaming. Supporters claim they are protecting everyone’s history. Opponents call the bill “traumatic and mentally exhausting”.

a statue of a person: The statue of the Confederate general Thomas Stonewall Jackson stands at the West Virginia capitol in Charleston. A state bill aims to criminalize the removal of Confederate statues. © Photograph: Ty Wright/Getty Images The statue of the Confederate general Thomas Stonewall Jackson stands at the West Virginia capitol in Charleston. A state bill aims to criminalize the removal of Confederate statues.

At a moment of national reckoning on race, the debate is fierce. “We were the Union. West Virginia was born out of seceding from Virginia, if i’m not mistaken,” said Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, one of the state’s few Black lawmakers. “We’re advocating for people who wanted to kill us.”

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The bill being considered by West Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature would criminalize the removal of Confederate statues unless that removal is first approved by the state’s historic preservation office.

Last year some 168 Confederate symbols were removed in cities and states across the US according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

The national shift has clearly given impetus to the West Virginia bill. “We’ve seen a lot of attacks on historical monuments and names, and I think West Virginia is uniquely situated, historically, to have an interest in that,” said delegate Chris Phillips, a Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor.

The West Virginia Monument and Memorial Protection Act of 2021 seeks to prevent city councils, county commissions, boards of education, universities and any other public entity from removing statues or renaming structures dedicated to people who participated in a United States military conflict – unless the removal or renaming has been approval by the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office.

The bill would affect monuments to every military conflict in United States history, from the French and Indian war to the second Gulf war. It would also prevent the removal or renaming of monuments to the labor movement, civil rights movement, Native American history or natural disasters.

Anyone who does not go through this process could be fined $500 and spend six months in jail.

Phillips says it’s important to take away local governments’ authority to remove monuments because history belongs to everyone, not just locals.

“If there’s a legitimate desire and need to remove monuments or rename anything in the state, then I think it behooves us to have a process in place that’s calm and thoughtful,” Phillips said. “And have historians involved in it.”

Critics say there’s another motivation behind the bill.

“I don’t see any other reason for it,” said David Fryson, a lawyer and minister who previously served as West Virginia University’s vice-president for diversity, equity and inclusion. “It’s not like we have Nazi monuments in West Virginia. It’s not like we have any other kind of historical challenge. This is all about the Confederate monuments.”

It’s traumatic and mentally exhausting, working for the betterment of all West Virginians and you’re reminded you’re not valued

Delegate Sean Hornbuckle

In particular, Fryson suspects the bill is a response to debates about the monument of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson that stands on the West Virginia capitol grounds. Jackson was born in what would become West Virginia, but fought against the state’s creation.


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West Virginia was born during the American civil war when state lawmakers from western Virginia decided to remain loyal to the United States as the rest of Virginia seceded to join the Confederacy.

Hornbuckle, a Democrat, echoed Fryson’s concerns during debate about the bill.

“Why this? Why now?” he said. “All of us witnessed back in the summer our country at a boiling point.”

Hornbuckle is also concerned the legislation would strip local governments of the power to make decisions for their communities.

“It’s told the people they don’t matter anymore, and the people here in Charleston are going to make the decision for you,” he said in an interview with the Guardian.

He points to a recent example from his district: students and staff at Marshall University wanted to change the name of the campus education building. It was named for Albert Jenkins, a Marshall alumni and Confederate general whose men captured free Black people in Pennsylvania to sell them into slavery.

The school’s board of governors initially resisted changing the name. They reconsidered after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 and the protests that followed.

Under Phillips’s bill, the school would not have had the autonomy to change the name.

Hornbuckle attempted to add an amendment to the bill, deleting references to the state historic preservation office and replacing it with “local government municipalities”.

House leadership didn’t even put his amendment to a vote, although Democrats were able to get the bill amended so any citizen could directly petition the historic preservation office to remove a statue or rename a structure. The bill passed the house of delegates with a 70–28 vote. The majority of opposing votes came from Democrats.

Hornbuckle says when the legislature considers changes to the state’s court system, lawmakers rely on the experience of the attorneys in the room. When they work on education bills, they rely on the educators in the chamber.

“But when it’s a bill like this, people are not listening to the historians in the room. Or the people that this impacts the most in this room,” Hornbuckle said. “It’s traumatic and mentally exhausting, working for the betterment of all West Virginians and you’re reminded you’re not valued.”

Phillips insists the bill isn’t racially motivated.

“This isn’t a Confederate protection act that some people try to make it (out to be). I’m truly interested in preserving history,” he said. “I do truly feel there’s a risk of losing historical perspective.”

He credits his own interest in history to seeing a statue of Stonewall Jackson in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the Confederate general’s hometown.

“His military genius is still studied today, and that doesn’t make him admirable for the cause he’s fighting for, but it’s still very important. And certainly very important to West Virginia and the area,” he said.

But David Trowbridge, a Marshall University history professor, says many of the Confederate monuments in West Virginia are themselves an attempt to erase history.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored a massive monument-raising campaign from the group’s founding in the late 1800s through the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. The statues and plaques were part of an effort to change the historic narrative about the civil war. They insisted the civil war was not about slavery and that slavery “civilized” African Americans. The group helped to popularize the Gone with the Wind-style image of a glamorous pre-war south and attempted to paint its military leaders as tragic heroes.

“They were attempting to erase history. They wanted to create a false narrative,” Trowbridge said.

Trowbridge created Clio, a location-based app that provides histories of thousands of sites in the United States, written by scholars. According to the Clio entry for the Stonewall Jackson statue that inspired Phillips’s love of history, the monument was erected by the local chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1953, just 16 years before the delegate was born.

It is unclear how the monument protection bill will fare in the West Virginia state senate. The legislation has been referred to the senate’s judiciary committee but, as of this writing, the committee has not yet taken action. The legislature’s regular session ends 10April.

Fryson suspects the bill might backfire if passed. When removing a monument becomes an even slower and more frustrating process, members of the public might decide to take direct action.

“It very well could end up being a cause célèbre to pull them down,” Fryson said. “I think people might – and, I suggest, should – resort to civil disobedience.”

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