CHARLES TOWN – Patsy Noland, the only county native on the five-member Jefferson County Commission, says she now favors taking down the small bronze plaque bolted to the entrance of the Jefferson County Courthouse that pays tribute to county residents who fought against the United States starting in 1861.
During last week’s JCC meeting, Noland said she doesn’t think any plaques belong on the front of the historic public building. In early September, Noland had voted with the rest of the JCC to reject a citizens group’s request to remove the plaque put up in 1986 by the Leetown chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Noland said Thursday during a discussion of whether commissioners should move forward with the plan they OK’d last month to create a citizens committee to come up with standards for courthouse plaques, an idea ultimately rejected Thursday after extensive discussion. “I do believe there’s a place for markers but I don’t believe the front of the courthouse is where they should be.”
The text of the eight-line plaque includes the years of the Civil War and says: “In honor and memory of the Confederate soldiers of Jefferson County, who served in the War Between the States.”
The plaque makes no mention of county soldiers who fought against the Confederates to preserve the United States – white, free African-Americans or those newly freed from enslavement – or that the Civil War ended the enslavement of 4 million African-American children, women and men.
A group of African-American women who either live in Jefferson County or grew up here in mid-August sent a letter to the JCC asking that the plaque be taken down immediately and “without fanfare.” The JCC on Sept. 7 voted 5-0 to leave the plaque in place.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s intent with the Charles Town plaque, as with the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and other commemorations, is to paint the Confederate cause as just and honorable, explains Karen L. Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who is the leading national expert on the UDC.
Cox, who wrote an op-ed column on the UDC’s mission and influence throughout the 20th century for Friday’s New York Times, says she finds it incredible that Jefferson County leaders in 2017 voted to keep the plaque in a prominent location on the city’s main public building.
“It’s wrong to view a plaque like this as about history or about veterans – it’s so clearly a political statement,” says Cox, the author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.”
“It’s so obviously about white supremacy,” Cox said in an interview with the Spirit. “It’s about still holding onto the values of the Confederacy.”
The placement of the plaque at the entrance to the courthouse isn’t happenstance, explains Cox, who has toured the courthouse in Charles Town.
“It’s clearly a slap in the face to any African-Americans who comes to the courthouse to register to vote or to vote or what have you,” she said. “It’s saying to them, ‘If you’re expecting fair treatment here, don’t.’”
The county commissioners who view the plaque as innocuous “are living in la-la land,” Cox said. “It’s complete historical amnesia. In keeping this up, what the commissioners have said to African-American citizens, basically, is, ‘We value the message on this plaque more than we value you.’”
No people of color serve on the five-member JCC. Noland, a Democrat, serves with Republicans Peter Onoszko, appointed in 2016 to replace Republican Eric Bell after he was charged with exchanging explicit messages with a teenager; Caleb Wayne Hudson and Josh Compton, political newcomers elected in November as West Virginia voters overwhelmingly backed Republican Donald Trump for the White House; and Jane Tabb, who is serving her second six-year term.
“It needs to come down”
While Noland and Tabb insisted a citizens group is necessary to spell out guidelines about the plaques that would go up on the courthouse or the courthouse grounds to ensure fairness to all, Onoszko said the better approach is for citizens and organizations to create proposals, then present them for the JCC’s consideration.
“The most efficient way to accomplish this would be to have citizens – interested citizens – come up with a concept and present it directly to the commission,” Onoszko said. “We can take it up from there.”
Onoszko has encouraged Linda Ballard and her citizens group to create a plaque that pays tribute to the soldiers who fought for the United States during the Civil War that would be displayed alongside the Confederate plaque.
But Ballard, the Charles Town native who is the group’s spokeswoman, said in an interview Sunday that the JCC’s debate about forming a citizens group and discussions about future courthouse commemorations are side issues.
“This is where I’m at – I’m not pressing for anything at all to go up on the courthouse,” Ballard said. “Our goal has been and remains to get the Confederate plaque off the entrance of the courthouse. It does not belong there, and we have not lost sight of that. It needs to come down.”
When she came before the JCC in early September asking for the plaque to come down, Ballard said that Onoszko and others on the commission started the discussion about instead putting up a marker for those who fought to preserve the United States as well as some acknowledgement of the courthouse as the place where humans were sold for decades before the Civil War.
“We want the Confederate plaque taken down – 100 percent,” Ballard said. “We did not come with a request to put up another plaque. It was the Jefferson County Commission that came up with that, with what they saw as a solution.”
Besides Ballard – a 65-year-old Martinsburg resident who traces her family line to Anne Dixon Hicks, a woman enslaved in Jefferson County – others seeking the plaque’s removal include Augustine Strother, a lifelong Charles Town resident; Shepherdstown resident Brenda McCray; and Gloria Lindsey, a Charles Town native who lives in Martinsburg.
Though McCray is a native of D.C., the others grew up attending segregated schools in Charles Town. Jefferson County didn’t close its school for African-Americans until 1965, 11 years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation with its Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Ballard, whose mother and teenage grandchildren live in Jefferson County, visits the courthouse in Charles Town regularly to research deeds and other records related to her research into her family tree and on the county’s African-American history in general. Her father, the late Nathaniel F. Downing Sr., and three other lifelong county residents started the Jefferson County Black History Preservation Society in 2000.
When pressed by Tabb Thursday to explain his about face on the formation of a courthouse plaque committee, Onoszko said he now believes that it would be better for the JCC to decide on future plaques on a case-by-case basis.
Noland, who said a citizens committee would help Jefferson County residents come to agreement about “the deeper issue” of what to honor at the courthouse, was traveling following Thursday’s comment and unable to elaborate on her remark on the plaque.
In September, only Hudson voted against forming the citizens courthouse plaque committee.
Even as Hudson, Compton and Onoszko argued that no committee was needed to create a framework for future plaques, they did express concern that groups might flood the JCC with requests for courthouse markers.
“The absence of guidance doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Onoszko said. “The absence of guidance is a wide canvass. At the moment, from a practical standpoint, once we have this kind of committee then I think all sorts of people would feel compelled to have a plaque on the courthouse for every imaginable thing. And most of them would be worthy things, but ultimately the courthouse would be solid bronze.”
Toward the end of the plaque discussion, Compton weighed in with his thoughts on keeping future plaques similar in size to the Confederate marker, with text that he said should have a similar number of sentences as the UDC plaque.
“Within reason, being the same number of words, or two or three sentences – that would be the best route,” Compton said. “You are not going to come in here and ask for a giant billboard of a plaque.”
The Confederate plaque is one of four memorials on the front of the courthouse, though the other three – while bigger than the Confederate plaque – are situated at the building’s front corners, not at the entrance.
The others recognize World War II soldiers from the county, the man who started the county’s public school system for white students and Charles Town founder Charles Washington.
Martin Burke, the president of the Jefferson County Historic Landmarks Commission, has said he wants to see the Confederate plaque come down.
On Thursday Onoszko again described Burke’s opposition to the Confederate plaque as simply for the building’s aesthetics.“The Historic Landmarks Commission is going to make a recommendation ... to remove all the plaques and everything form the courthouse walls. And the reasoning behind this is more aesthetic than because of any cause or principle or anything like that.”
Actually, Burke – an art conservator by profession who has served on the HLC for nine years, eight as president – has said it’s inaccurate to characterize his anti-plaque position as based purely on aesthetics.
The historic courthouse “should be able to speak for itself” free of any plaques, Burke said in an interview.
Hudson, who served as a member of the Shepherdstown Historic Landmarks Commission before his election to the JCC, suggested the county’s Historic Landmarks Commission experts begin a process that would issue “certificates of appropriateness” for markers appropriate for the Charles Town courthouse, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.
Cox, a native of Huntington who said her family tree includes both Confederate soldiers and those who fought to preserve the United States, said the discussion in Charles Town is part of a reassessment of the appropriateness of Confederate plaques and statues in public places that’s occurring all over.
Cox is one of three experts slated to testify Oct. 23 in D.C. at the National History Center’s Congressional briefing on the history of Civil War monuments.
“I think it’s important for historians to speak up at this moment – to explain the truth about these Confederate memorials,” said Cox, who earned her bachelor and master’s degrees in history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi.
If the UDC had wanted simply to memorialize their ancestors and other Confederate soldiers, why put the marker on the courthouse, asks Cox, the founding director of UNC Charlotte’s graduate public history program where she leads a number of courses in Southern history and culture as well as graduate classes in public history.
“This really bothers me,” Cox said. “This is about the message being sent to citizens of Jefferson County – how the legal rights of African-Americans are viewed. It is an overt message.”
Besides “Dixie’s Daughters,” which in 2004 was named the Best Book in Southern Women’s History by the Southern Association for Women Historians, Cox has written two other books – “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture” and this year’s “Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race and the Gothic South” about a botched robbery in Natchez, Miss., in 1932 where Jennie Merrill, a white woman, was killed and an all-white juror sent Emily Burns, an innocent black woman, to prison for the crime.