Plaque activist

The small plaque in place to the left of the courthouse doors for 31 years is creating a big controversy. The text of the plaque is in all caps and reads: “1861 - 1865

In honor and memory

of the Confederate soldiers of Jefferson County, who served in the War Between the States. Erected by the Leetown Chapter #231 United Daughters of the Confederacy Erected May 25, 1986.” Linda Ballard and other concerned citizens point out the sign doesn’t mention the key outcomes of the Civil War — that federal soldiers preserved the United States and ended the enslavement of more than 3.9 million African-Americans.

It wasn’t the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., set off by white supremacists angry about plans to take down statues of Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that prompted Linda Ballard to ask county leaders to remove a small bronze plaque on the county courthouse that honors Confederate soldiers.

The seeds for her stance go back to last year, she said, when she and some friends took their young teenage grandchildren to the courthouse for “Charles Town & John Brown: The Rest of the Story…,” the history tours led by park rangers from the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Knowing these young people would see the message paying tribute to Jefferson County’s Confederate soldiers – with no mention of the soldiers who fought to preserve the United States nor the issue of slavery as sparking the Civil War – left Ballard feeling she had to work for change.

“We go to the courthouse and there’s the plaque,” Ballard said in an interview. “The next generation seeing this on the courthouse ... How do you explain something like that? This plaque does not deserve to be there.” 

She and five fellow citizens who either live in Jefferson County or who have ties here sent the Jefferson County Commission a letter Aug. 15 asking for the plaque’s removal.

Thursday’s contentious debate and the JCC’s 5-0 vote to keep the plaque in place was not unexpected, she said. “I grew up in Charles Town, I know how things are here,” she explained. 

Ballard, who is 65, was born just a few years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed school segregation, but she spent most of her elementary school years attending the segregated Eagle Avenue School. Jefferson County didn’t close its blacks-only schools until 1965 – 11 years after Brown.

Ballard, who lives in Martinsburg, comes to the Jefferson County Courthouse to examine deeds, wills and other documents as part of her research into her family’s history. 

“I’m a regular at the courthouse, and I have to see that plaque every time I walk in the doors,” she said. “For me – and for so many other people – this sign is a mockery. It’s not acceptable.”

“Taking down this plaque would not be erasing history as one of the statements at the commission meeting said. To say that, they’re missing the point. 

“Anyone who knows history knows the real patriots weren’t the Confederates. The real patriots served in the Civil War to preserve the United States and to end slavery. 

“Yes, the Confederate soldiers were considered full veterans later on and yes, they were granted pardons – but there’s the fact that they did something that they needed pardons for.”

Ballard said another motivation for her petition to have the plaque come down is to honor her ancestors who were enslaved in Jefferson County, including her paternal great-great-great grandmother, Ann Dixon Hicks, and Ann’s husband, Daniel Dixon Hicks, who spent their lives in Kabletown.

Though disappointed with the JCC’s vote, Ballard said she will continue her work.

“We stand by our convictions,” she said. “The plaque should be removed from the entrance of the courthouse. It completely ignores the two critical outcomes of the Civil War – that the real patriots kept the United States whole and that the war ended slavery. 

Both in an interview and at the JCC meeting as Ballard details her efforts to shed a light on the county’s actual history, her manner is unfailingly calm. That’s in contrast to much of the discussion at the JCC meeting, where several in favor of keeping the plaque in place raised their voices and engaged in name-calling.

“I am not hung up on rage,” she said. “The people who are enraged over this ... when I thought about it, I realized that what they’re furious about, still furious, is that they lost the war. 

“It’s an open wound for them. And they know ‘honoring the Confederates’ sends more than a subtle message, especially to African-Americans. That what they want.”

The text of the plaque is in all caps and reads: 

“1861 - 1865

IN HONOR AND A MEMORY OF THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, WHO SERVED IN THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES. 

ERECTED BY THE LEETOWN CHAPTER #231 UNITED DAUGHTERS OF THE CONFEDERACY 

ERECTED MAY 25, 1986” 

What’s at stake now, Ballard said, is whether the pro-Confederate members of the community will finally have to accept the reality that the South lost – and that the Lost Cause is lost forever.

“This isn’t an African-American issue,” she said. “The status quo shouldn’t be accepted by anyone. It really is time for the historical truth about the Civil War to be up on display at the courthouse, and for them [the pro-Confederates] to accept the outcome.”

OTHER COURTHOUSE SYMBOLS

The bronze plaque highlighting Confederate soldiers at the entrance to the stately courthouse on the corner of George and Washington streets in Charles Town is the newest of four markers on the building.

The courthouse’s exterior also has other plaques on the front of the building, but away from the entrance and not as easily seen: 

• One dates to 1925 and recognizes the “Four Corner Lots” donated to the city by its founder Charles Washington.

• Another, installed in 1937, honors John Yates, the man credited with starting what became the public school system for white children in the county.

A third, put up in 1948, honors those who served and died in World War II.

A wayside display along George Street outside the courthouse highlights the life of Martin Delany, an abolitionist who graduated from Harvard Medical School and fought for the United States in the Civil War. 

There are also a number of historical markers and waysides in front of the courthouse and along the George Street side of the building, including one about the 1859 John Brown trial, one about Charles Town founder Charles Washington and another about Martin Delany, one of the country’s most celebrated African-Americans of his time who was born free in Charles Town on May 6, 1812. His mother fled with her children to the free state of Pennsylvania when Delany was 10 after the discovery that she’d taught her children to read, a violation of Virginia law.

Inside the Jefferson County Courthouse, the first floor hallway features a hodgepodge of visual displays including sketches of the Brown trial created for Harper’s Monthly by David Hunter Strother, the Martinsburg-born artist known as Porte Crayon.

In the main meeting room there are framed sketches of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, a second illustration of the two together astride their horses, a bust of the county’s namesake Thomas Jefferson, a painting of the historic courthouse and a framed photo of civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.

 

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