Regulators have been investigating the move all year as a novel way to protect Confederate heritage at a time when other locations in Virginia and the South are removing statues as symbols of racism. Mathews is an isolated community of farms and fishing villages along the Chesapeake Bay at the tip of Virginia’s Central Peninsula and has a population of about 8,600, about 8 percent of whom are Black.
A Virginia county is trying to protect a Confederate statue in its courthouse
The local chapter of the NAACP has threatened a lawsuit over any effort to transfer ownership, and some residents have opposed the idea of giving public lands to a private group — let alone protecting a Confederate monument permanently . State Department of Historic Resources officials said they were not aware of any other location in Virginia that was considering such a move.
“There is no public mandate for such an unprecedented and irreversible transfer,” County Commonwealth Attorney Tom C. Bowen III wrote in a letter to the Post-Gazette newspaper, which was also posted on Facebook. Bowen said he was speaking in private, not in his official capacity. “Ownership should not be transferred to a private corporation where the [board of supervisors] and the public has no influence.”
Confederate memorials across the state have met a variety of fates since the 2020 General Assembly voted to allow communities to dismantle them. A few have been preserved in place — a handful of them because they’re still owned by the organization that donated them decades ago. But the land they stand on remains public.
Albemarle County donated his statue to a battlefield in the Shenandoah Valley. Richmond has donated about a dozen statues to his Black History Museum, which has loaned one to the city’s Valentine Museum and several others to an art museum in California. Charlottesville voted to give his statue of General Robert E. Lee to a museum to be melted down and turned into new works of art.
Last year, a referendum in Mathews County on whether to remove the statue found that more than 80 percent of voters supported leaving it in place. Despite this show of support, Confederate heritage groups and the four white members of the five-person oversight board said the memorial was being besieged by a change in public attitudes.
“I think all of us here would have liked the idea that we could just leave it as it is, back to what we used to think of as normal,” Chief Executive Paul Hudgins said during a Nov. 22 meeting. “That would be all well and good if the memorial wasn’t attacked.”
In recent weeks, authorities had the county install a surveillance camera aimed at the statue, a generic figure of a soldier on a pillar that was not defaced by protesters. The live feed is now being broadcast on a video screen inside the 1830 courthouse, providing a real-time view of the memorial standing a few yards outside the building as the board goes about their business.
At a fiery public hearing in September, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans monitored the courthouse door, letting the public in or out.
District supervisors said at the time they would not assign the memorial to a Confederate heritage group. Locals of the SCV and the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the memorial in 1912, but those locals have long since been dissolved.
A modern chapter of the SCV, which banded together to protect the memorial after the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, came forward earlier this year and offered to take ownership. This prompted public outcry and threats of legal action from the NAACP and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs.
Nevertheless, the board of directors went ahead and commissioned an official survey of the property. Late last month, the board called a special meeting to decide whether to waive a district subdivision ordinance that requires property to be larger before it can be divided into smaller lots.
Only a handful of residents turned up for the hastily called November 22 meeting. With little discussion, the board voted 4-1 to repeal the ordinance — the lone black member voted against but did not comment — and only then opened the issue up for public debate.
“I don’t really understand everything that just happened here,” district resident Sharon Dequaine told the panel. “If this is a decision to be made, it should be put to a referendum for all citizens to agree or disagree. After all, it is our common property.”
The statue debate provokes a fiery defense of the Confederacy in Mathews County, Virginia
The draft deed, prepared by county officials, would transfer ownership to a group called Mathews War Memorial Preservation Inc. for $10. This group was registered with the State Corporation Commission in mid-September by David M. “Sonny” Fauver, a resident and district member of the SCV, a long-time conservation advocate.
Fauver did not respond to an email asking for comment.
The draft charter contains restrictions on how the statue should be cared for: no overgrown vegetation; no Confederate flags – only US, state and county flags are allowed; no construction on the property, but fence allowed; the monument may not be removed.
In addition, the private group must provide security for the site and “protect the monument from vandalism or defacement.”
District Administrator Ramona Wilson and members of the board of directors did not respond to requests for comment.
But at the Nov. 22 meeting, Supervisor Mike Walls said the people who opposed the statue’s transfer were evidence it was under threat.
“Exactly what we’ve heard here today is why we have to do what we have to do,” he said.
“It’s part of our history,” Chairman Hudgins said at the same meeting. “Well, if you don’t like our story, you have the right not to like it. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean we’re going to go back and change our history here in Mathews County.”