The last year has seen the former capital of the Confederacy make some of its largest changes since Lee surrendered in Appomattox 156 years ago.
APPOMATTOX, Va. (CN) — When you enter the county of Appomattox a giant sign welcomes you with a message: “Where our nation reunited.” It’s a message many argue looks good in giant letters but fails to accurately represent those who were oppressed at the hands of the losing side of the American Civil War which ended over 150 years ago this month. While the Confederacy might have surrendered in Appomattox, its legacy has long been ingrained in every part of Virginia.
As the nation continues to struggle with its racist past, in the last year alone the state which once housed the Confederacy’s capital has seen some of the greatest changes since Appomattox and General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
Post-war Reconstruction opened the door to Black equality, which was later quashed by Jim Crow-era lawmaking. The civil rights movement of the 60s addressed some of the structural issues that philosophy created, but between the removal of statues, changes in laws and a shift in community thinking thanks in part to the massively televised death of George Floyd, the Lost Cause narrative of Southern heroism is arguably at its lowest point since its historical demise.
“I know there’s an issue with race that’s always been here,” said Joetricia Humbles, a lifelong Appomattox resident and co-organizer of Appomattox for Equality, a group which sprung up in the wake of Floyd’s death and the protests which swept the country — yes, even in Appomattox — early last summer.
Humbles, now in her 40s and with a family of her own, remembers how hollow that “reunited” message rang when she was growing up in the sleepy rural community. There were parts of the county her family wasn’t welcome in because of the color of their skin, and the Ku Klux Klan would march through the town of Appomattox’s main drag.
But there were efforts to share the stories of those oppressed. Pastor Alfred L. Jones III, a local historian and Past Emeritus at the Appomattox Jesus Center Church, said he remembers efforts by the National Park Association who manages the Appomattox Court House National Park where Lee signed the surrender documents. Similarly the American Civil War Museum, formerly known as the Museum of the Confederacy until less than a decade ago, has worked to include Black stories.
“They’ve always had the African American story,” he said in defense of the long-running historical institutions, but he noted the county and town of Appomattox itself has been less eager to lose its Confederate past.
“I don’t see any Emancipation Boulevard,” Jones says, noting there’s still a Confederate Boulevard lining the town’s main street.
“There’s little things, and most people never pay attention to it,” he said. “Where are the monuments for the victors, for the emancipated people?”
Civil War monuments are undoubtedly among the former Confederacy’s most visual legacies. Their removal nationwide and in Virginia has made headlines, but the rolling back of a state law in 2020 empowered localities to remove them, opening the flood gates for their demise.
It was a new Democratic trifecta which allowed for that law to change, but it wouldn’t be the only law rooted in the state’s racist past on the chopping block. During the recent 2021 session, the state ended the death penalty, legalized small amounts of marijuana possession and rolled back voting restrictions put in place by a GOP majority less than a decade ago.
Some Black female legislators went even further and expanded access to the polls, making Virginia a new gold standard for voting rights.
State Senator Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat representing Richmond, was one of the sponsors of the voting rights expansion, but she was also front and center for the years when the GOP-ran state government put the old voter ID law in place.
“I was a 32-year-old Black woman from the most Democratic district in the state in a legislature that was mostly older white men,” said McClellan in a recent interview about her early years more than a decade ago in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
She said it didn’t take long for her to notice those on the other side of the aisle, many of whom ran as members of the Tea Party, sometimes citing the racist birtherism conspiracy against former President Barack Obama and his landmark Affordable Care Act, were simply uninformed about the state’s past.
“I had a great-grandfather in 1901 who had to take a literacy test and find three white people to vouch for him to be able to register,” McClellan said. “In January, I found a copy of my dad’s receipt for the poll tax he had to pay.”
She specifically remembered when the voting ID bill came before the full chamber and she spoke about how older Black Virginians, thanks to the Jim Crow-era law the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, would be impacted by the voting ID effort. The 1924 law, aimed at keeping the whites and Blacks from mixing among other racist goals, made it hard for people of color to get birth certificates, which were required for the state IDs needed to vote under the new law.
The Racial Integrity Act wasn’t overturned until 1967 as part of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended the ban on interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia, meaning Black folks born up to that point could be denied the right to vote today under the then-proposed law..
“I saw quickly a lack of understanding about our history and how Jim Crow-era laws impact communities today,” she said.
McClellan is a Central Virginia native, growing up 20 miles south of Richmond in Petersburg. Now in her 40s, she and her sisters were the first generation of her family to attend integrated schools, and while her mostly Black community helped avoid some of the worst parts of the Confederacy’s legacy it was often the topic of discussion among her parents who experienced it firsthand.
“Everywhere you looked all you ever heard about was Civil War battles and you heard nothing about Reconstruction or otherwise,” she said of the often ignored heydays for post-war Black communities which created, for the first time, the opportunity for generational wealth for people like her. But Jim Crow, redlining, a system used by banks to devalue Black neighborhoods, and national infrastructure projects that were deliberately constructed through successful, mostly Black neighborhoods, ate away at those gains.
“It wasn’t until I was an adult, even as a legislator in my 30s, until I learned about the over 100 Black men who served in the General Assembly or the Freedmen’s Bureau and I think that was intentional,” she added.
She called the spread of the Lost Cause narrative, the romanticized idea that the South bravely fought for states’ rights and against federal control, a “pernicious” part of her everyday life.
“It’s as simple as teachers telling kids ‘George Washington owned slaves but he was good to them,’ or Monticello turning Sally Hemmings quarters into a bathroom and never talking about her,” she said, arguing the suppression of racist details was intentional.
Ending that legacy hasn’t been easy — beyond the steps required to change the state’s political majority, private citizens have used the law to try and maintain symbols of the state’s controversial history.
Among them is Charles Weber, a Charlottesville-area attorney who was a plaintiff in a suit against the city after their city council voted to remove statues of Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from local public parks.
The attempted removal sparked events like the Unite The Right Rally which, in the summer of 2017, saw hundreds of white supremacists descend on the rural town and leave one woman, Heather Heyer, dead.
“Looking at the two statues we have, they have an artistic merit that not only represents the two individuals but also distinct moments in time which convey a historical message that is relevant today,” Weber said in a phone interview. He suggested the effort to remove statues these days is more a reflection of modern “wokeness.”
“They started talking about removal after the Dylann Roof shooting, and its a legitimate conversation to be had,” he said, pointing to the 2015 mass shooting where Roof, a white teen, entered the over 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot and killed 9 people while they were praying. “But there are aspects of these two statues that transcend time and place and they need to remain.”
Weber and his fellow plaintiffs found success in Charlottesville Circuit Court where a judge found the city violated a 1997 amendment to a state law which barred the removal of war monuments. But an appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia, to the surprise of many, found otherwise and sided with the city.
Weber said they offered to conform with the injunction blocking the two statutes’ removal in line with when the state changed the law last year but the state court never held a hearing on the motion. And while he respects the ruling of the state’s highest court, he’s not privy to the attorney’s plans on an appeal. If they were to appeal the decision it would have to get a rehearing at the state Supreme Court before heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Notably The Supreme Court of Virginia sided with the city thanks to specifics in the law’s construction and Virginia’s Constitution not often allowing laws to be applied retroactively. The original law, which in part one grants local governments the ability to erect statues and in part two allows for their removal, only applied to counties but in 1997 they expanded it to all “localities.”
“What does that mean for the authorization to build a monument that was built in the 1920s since cities were authorized to build in part one and authorized to remove in part two,” said Richard Schragger, the Perre Bowen Professor at University of Virginia’s School of Law. “It’s a bit strange to retroactively authorize the construction of a war memorial.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia is made up of judges appointed by state legislators. And while the state’s long running GOP majority filled a majority of the seats, it’s notable that they unanimously sided with Charlottesville in the statue dispute.
But Schragger warns it shouldn’t be looked into too much.
“They’re unlikely to go well out of their way to invite controversy,” the professor said, pointing to another high profile statue dispute where Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney removed over a dozen monuments to the confederacy last summer, the same day the new law went into effect.
Local landowners sued to get the handful of Richmond’s statues put back but the state Supreme Court once again sided with the city, finding the statue law, recently amended by Democrats, barred citizens from filing suit in the first place.
But the same landowners who aimed to keep Richmond’s statues up are still embroiled in a battle with the state to keep a massive monument to General Lee erected on state land in the city’s downtown.
The state’s high court may have avoided the thorny racial issues in Charlottesville and the first Richmond-based dispute, but it might be harder for them to do so with the remaining state-owned Lee. While Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who has long advocated for statue removal, has argued recent legislative fixes by the General Assembly should be grounds enough for removal. Those who seek to keep Lee standing claim the state is bound by a 130-year-old restrictive covenant to keep and maintain it.
The very nature of restrictive covenants lies in their racist past; the contracts, Herring’s office successfully argued before Richmond City Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant, are a remnant of the state’s racist history, which pushes them outside the realm of something the state could or should honor today.
“Their testimony described a post-war South where the white citizenry wanted to impose and state unapologetically their continued belief in the validity and honor of their ‘Lost Cause,’ and thereby vindicate their way of life and their former Confederacy,” Marchant wrote in October of last year. “It was out of this backdrop that the erection of the Lee monument took place.”
Whether or not the state’s high court weighs in on the racist nature of restrictive covenants remains to be seen as oral arguments in the appeal aren’t even on the court’s calendar yet. However, Schragger thinks the judges might find a way to dodge the tough questions again and look solely to the changes at the Legislature and Governor’s Mansion as grounds for Lee’s removal.
“The political branches have spoken so clearly, it would have been pretty dramatic for Virginia’s Supreme Court to say something contrary to that,” he said.
While the statues and the legal fights around them represent a stark change in the state’s view of its old guard, the change in the people itself has also been key to its success. McClellan thinks it has something to do with the visibility of Floyd’s death, caught on video and blasted to TVs and phones across the country as the nation was in the throes of coronavirus lockdowns.
“What [Floyd’s death] has done for racial justice, including monuments, is like what happened with the Vietnam War in the 60s,” she said. “People were forced to think about things they hadn’t thought about before.”
The impact from Floyd’s video happened quickly. She remembers walking her dog through her Richmond neighborhood, only blocks away from where Lee still stands, and neighbors stopping her to say they finally realized how people of color viewed the moments and the underlying causes that supported them.
Jones, back in Appomattox, said the same thing happened to him.
“What do we need to do to address inequality, that’s what I was hearing on my professional level,” he said of post-Floyd conversations with local white people and business owners. “People were looking for ‘what can we do?’”
The change of heart from the population is best represented in its continued shift to the left.
That shift started in 2013 with the election of Governor Terry McAuliffe, who’s running for the same seat this year. And former-President Donald Trump’s win in 2016 — he lost Virginia then by five points — lurched it even further. The state’s House, Senate and gubernatorial Democratic trifecta, stemming from “blue wave” elections in 2017 and 2019 and topping off with Trump’s 10-point loss in 2020, have given McClellan and her fellow Democrats incredible power and purpose to move their agenda.
“Now we tear down the systemic monuments to white supremacy and racism that are woven into our systems: education, housing, transportation and justice,” said McClellan, who’s also in the middle of a bid for the state’s 2021 Democratic gubernatorial primary against McAuliffe and handful of other candidates. “We’ve started to do that but we’ve got a long way to go before we eradicate those systemic monuments to Jim Crow.”
For people like Humbles it’s a welcome sight, something she’s started to see along side efforts from the local history sites to expand on what happened to people who looked like her in the area she’s long-since called home.
“There’s so much history surrounding African Americans I didn’t know existed. I didn’t learn it in school, I learned it at the historical park last year,” she said. “I had to be in my forties to learn about all this, but my kids are learning about it now.”