While many in the county say the plaque honoring Confederate servicemen ought to stay in place, a growing number of citizens urge the Jefferson County Commission to move it from the city’s main public building and allow our community to begin to heal.
Why not move the plaque to the Confederate section of the cemetery, a lovely, bucolic setting that already boasts a Confederate soldier statue? An installation ceremony could be planned where anyone in the community could come and remember their ancestors and the other individual soldiers.
And then a new, more inclusive plaque could go up on the courthouse to recognize how the Civil War divided our community, to celebrate that slavery ended after the war and to recognize that our community didn’t continue to fight about the Civil War but came together in 2017.
Commissioner Caleb Hudson has pointed out repeatedly that he favors drawing attention to the sacrifices made by veterans so in addition to the new plaque at the courthouse and the expanded tribute to the Confederates at Edge Hill, our community could put another plaque up at Jefferson Memorial Park that lists the soldiers by name – those who fought for the United States, including Jefferson County men newly freed from slavery, as well as the Confederate soldiers.
By simply moving the small plaque that has divided us to a more appropriate location – not where citizens must come to vote, register to vote and for other official business – we can show a united community, honor our veterans and add to the public account of history.
So far, the JCC has not truly heard the request made by Ballard and her small group of African-American citizens in mid-August. JCC President Peter Onoszko has urged “reconciliation” but with another plaque beside the current one — that’s not what Ballard and her citizens group requested. They asked the JCC to remove the Confederate plaque from the courthouse entrance “without fanfare.”
On Sept. 7 when the JCC first formally considered the plaque request, Onoszko – appointed to the JCC last year after Eric Bell resigned – opened that day’s proceedings with a lengthy statement that Congressman Alex Mooney later read into the Congressional Record.
In the 801-word declaration, Onoszko begins by quoting from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address delivered the month before the Civil War’s end. He doesn’t address the Confederate cause – the decision to go to war against the United States in the hope that Southerners could go on owning millions of African-American men, women and children – but does show how he views Ballard and the others asking for the plaque’s removal.
“Tragically,” Onoszko said, “today there exist small radical minorities among both white and black Americans who seek to undermine over a century and a half of progress” since the Civil War, “creating harmful division and discord between our people and threatening to destroy our country. This has got to stop.”
Onoszko’s characterization of Ballard and her colleagues as “radicals” sets Charles Town’s plaque discussion apart, explains Kevin Levin, a Boston-based historian and educator who specializes in Civil War history and who tracks the debates happening over Confederate memorials in dozens of communities.
“That’s highly unusual – to have the people asking for a memorial to come down as radical, as somehow unAmerican,” he said.
On Thursday as Ballard and others came before the JCC again pressing for the plaque’s removal, Onoszko again dismissed Ballard’s questions about whether the JCC in 1986 held any public discussion or even took a vote before OKing putting the plaque up on the public building.
When pressed by Ballard to address criticisms of the plaque detailed in a letter to Onoszko from Cox – one of three experts invited to testify on Civil War monuments at a Congressional hearing that very week – Onoszko quickly dismissed her too, even calling her quoting a Harvard expert as “idiotic logic” rather than consider any of her specific points.
Worse still, after Wharton told the JCC she wanted the plaque to come down rather than for the community fight to continue, commissioners turned their backs on the opportunity to resolve the issue in the way that both the African-American group and the UDC leader agree on.
Instead it appears some on the JCC will double-down on the plaque when the commission meets again Thursday. Toward the end of the plaque discussion at last week’s session, Josh Compton, elected along with Hudson a year ago amid Trump’s landslide victory across West Virginia, said he plans to present a resolution that would ensure the Confederate plaque could not be taken off the courthouse wall.
The “protection resolution” is the work of Ramona Wesling, who heads the Liberty Political Action Committee. It drew statements of support during the JCC’s public comments time on Thursday from several community members as well as Chris Anders, one of the group’s former leaders who now lives in Loudoun County, Va.
In a Facebook post after the JCC meeting, Wesling explained the measure is about “defending and protecting ALL historical monuments, markers and memorials in Jefferson County. This is the time for you to voice your support of preventing the far left agitators from using our history as a club to forward their radical agenda. For it is not just a war on history, but the fabric of our nation and our Constitution that is at risk. This is not 1984, where the political elite change history to suit their agenda. Across the country hate groups have been working to either manipulate or destroy our history and heritage.”
The truth is, moving the plaque from the courthouse to the Confederate section of the city cemetery in no way destroys history.
It simply would remove from a prominent spot on the city’s main public building an object that literally honors those who went to war against the U.S. in 1861 for the cause of continuing to enslave African-American people. Moving it would make our courthouse a place that feels equally welcome to all. It lets our historic courthouse stand on its own.
It’s the solution that UDC spokeswoman Polly Wharton favors.
It’s what a group of African-American citizens has urged the county to do for weeks.
It’s what Charles Town’s mayor suggests. And the leader of the county’s Historic Landmarks Commission. And a national expert in Civil War memorials. And an educator working to use art as a means of giving everyone in our community a seat at the table.
Those in favor of keeping the plaque on the courthouse would no longer be able to see it at the courthouse,but they could rest assured that the bronze marker would occupy a place of honor. Paying tribute to soldiers near the graves of the soldiers themselves seems perfectly appropriate.
It’s a decision that aligns with the words of Lincoln cited by Onoszko as discussion of the plaque first unfolded in early September: “With malice toward none and charity for all.’’
Commissioners on Thursday can exercise charity toward all the county’s citizens and those who visit here if they take their cue from Wharton and Ballard, once on opposing sides but now united in the belief that the plaque’s placement away from the courthouse is best for our community.