Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, CJR and the Delacorte Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
A few hundred yards from my driveway is a historical marker denoting the location of the Caroline Friends Meeting House, established by Quakers in the early 1700s at what is now known as Golansville. The marker notes that on March 12, 1739, members of this congregation joined with fellow Quakers in nearby Hanover County and issued a call to end slaveholding. It took another 126 years and a bloody Civil War to accomplish that goal. Residents of Caroline County, and the nation, are divided still over the legacy of that war and the Constitutional promise of equal rights for all, regardless of race, sex, or religion.
Throughout the history of rural Virginia, churches have played an important role as gathering places for worship, fellowship, and the exchange of local news, as well as a launching pad for social change. To at least some degree that remains true today. One recent example of this was the involvement of local pastors and their congregations in deciding the fate of a 114-year-old Confederate monument on the grounds of the historic Caroline County Courthouse in Bowling Green.
Local clergy were at the forefront of the movement to remove this generic Confederate soldier from his perch high on a stone obelisk. Biblical scripture peppered the rhetoric of many of those who made presentations at two public hearings. The church people were opposed, meanwhile, by a number of prominent local historians, historical preservationists, Civil War buffs, and descendants of the soldiers.
The soldier has stood in front of the courthouse for more than a century and can be seen above, over the “W” in “Bowling Green” in the stylized postcard that illustrates this part of the Year of Fear series. The stone fighter and the column he stands atop were placed there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a 126-year-old group concerned with the historical legacy of the Confederacy and deemed “neo-Confederate” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and dedicated to the memory of all of the men from Caroline County who served the Army of the Confederacy. The dedication took place in 1906, three years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk, three years before a group of activists including W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells founded the NAACP—and more than four decades after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
A brief account of the 1906 dedication, which ran in the nearby Northumberland County Echo, said this: “When near four thousand people, mostly citizens of Caroline, assembled in Bowling Green on the 25th of July to witness the unveiling of the Confederate Monument, and spent the entire day quietly and without drinking, swearing, and fussing, we remarked that it was quite different to what we had witnessed in other towns.”
Generations of Caroline County residents, Black and white, Hispanic and Native American, passed by the monument without explicit protest—until this year, one marked by a pandemic, political turmoil, and widespread and sometimes violent Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality.
On August 25, 114 years and one month after the monument was dedicated, the Caroline County Board of Supervisors decided the statue’s fate. There were no nightly vigils with hundreds of protestors, as there had been earlier this summer at the Robert E. Lee monument and other Confederate statues in Richmond. An initial demonstration in early July calling for the statue’s removal attracted fewer than a dozen people, mostly local clergy. In mid-July, Lydell Fortune, a trustee at St. John’s Baptist Church in Woodford and a member of the Germanna Community College Board, presented the supervisors with a petition containing more than 2,500 names calling for the statue to go. Another resident, Pamela Smith, presented a petition containing 808 names calling for the statue to stay. (Smith pointed out at the August public hearing that her names were all documented residents of the county. Fortune’s petition was conducted online, and my examination found that the majority of the names were from out of state.)
Reacting to the issue, the supervisors first held a public hearing on August 11 and defeated, by a four-to-two vote, a motion to put the question of the statue on the November 3 ballot, in a nonbinding referendum. At a second public hearing, on August 25, fifteen letters were read into the record—ten in favor of keeping the statue and five opposed. But speaking at the hearing were thirty-one residents, twenty-four arguing for its removal and ten to keep it in place. Most, though not all, of those asking for the statue’s removal were Black, but it felt to this author like more of a Red State/Blue State divide than a racial divide.
In 2020, though passions ran high during the lengthy public hearing, COVID-19 restrictions on social distancing prevented the sort of packed-house atmosphere that has characterized previous hot topics. All in all, the episode underlined the sort of low-key, measured approach Caroline County residents tend to take to solving problems.
In his letter to the Board of Supervisors, the Reverend Marvin Fields, of Dawn, explained that it was the well-documented cases of police brutality against Black citizens this year that have led to protests over Confederate symbols.
“Now when I walk past that statue, I look at it different,” he said. “What were they fighting for? They were fighting to uphold slavery. This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue.”
Herbert Collins, a retired Smithsonian acquisitions officer, Caroline County native, and descendant of the county’s early Quaker settlers, defended the Confederate monument because, he said, it represents the common soldiers, many of whom had little choice but to fight for Virginia. “Our history is not perfect,” he said. “We cannot change history by tearing down statues.”
But Stanley O. Jones argued that the point of these Confederate statues, still standing a century and a half after the end of the Confederacy, “is to disenfranchise and alienate African Americans.
“We need to take advantage of the time and help heal and bring us together,” he said.
On the other side, a former county librarian, Kay Brooks, wrote that history is “a big part of what draws people to our county,” and “there is nothing distinguishing the race, affiliation, or time in history of the dignified soldier standing atop the tribute. It is simply a recognition of the sacrifice men have made to protect our home.”
The Reverend Duane T. Fields, Sr., however, writing on behalf of the NAACP, did not see the statue as benign. “If we are ever to heal,” he wrote, “then it must begin with removing the Confederate monument from the lawn of the county courthouse and offering it for display in a privately held space or institution.”
Calling for unity on the topic, the Reverend Cynthia Golden, a former Caroline County school teacher, quoted Biblical scripture and Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Toward the end of the meeting, the Board Chairman, Jeff Sili, a prominent County Republican, pushed for a compromise of a sort: “The one thing I can say everyone agrees upon is that this piece of history be preserved. We simply do not agree about its location. I believe we can move past that.”
At the end of the nearly four-hour session, the supervisors voted, unanimously, to remove the statue and locate it somewhere more appropriate. A final decision on disposition will follow a thirty-day period to receive proposals and cost estimates.
One of many clergymen involved in the debate over the monument was the Reverend Duane Fields, Sr., who was born in Queens, New York, and came to Caroline County as a teenager. Fields is married to an ordained minister, the Reverend Sheree Fields, and is the son of the Reverend Marvin Fields of Second Mount Zion Baptist Church in Dawn, Virginia. The younger Fields was installed as pastor of Oxford Mount Zion Baptist Church in Ruther Glen, Virginia, twenty years ago, and ministers to a congregation of six hundred people.
“In the rural south, I believe the church is the hub for everything,” Fields said. He has witnessed family tragedies and community controversies in his twenty years at the pulpit, but he rates the controversy over the county’s Confederate monument as “the most divisive topic that we have dealt with. There hadn’t been a social issue as important as this.”
A proposal to take the statue has been submitted by nearby Greenlawn Cemetery, which contains many graves of Civil War soldiers. The Caroline County Historical Society has endorsed that choice.
Looking back, looking ahead
Maybe the removal of one Confederate statue here in quiet, rural, tradition-loving Virginia, is some kind of political tea leaf. Or maybe it isn’t. The tea leaves here are exceedingly difficult to read in this strange political season.
As we near the end of this Year of Fear series, I looked back at my earlier columns. It is clear that I did not anticipate what 2020 would bring us. In that I am not alone. Most of us expected 2020 to be mainly about the presidential and congressional elections. Back in January, who could have predicted a worldwide pandemic? Or the dramatic Black Lives Matter response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others at the hands of policemen? Or the death of a US Supreme Court justice just six weeks before Election Day.
In January, Virginia’s unemployment rate was 2.7 percent and the economic picture was rosy. Almost overnight it soared to double digits; as of July, it was around 8 percent. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a neurosurgeon, was loudly criticized by many for closing down the state at the beginning of the pandemic and then dragging his feet on reopening Virginia for business. Now that we have seen what happened to states that were too eager to ease restrictions, those voices have become quieter.
Because Caroline County is rural and sparsely populated, we have thus far avoided staggering COVID-19 statistics. Earlier last week, the total cases in this county of thirty-one thousand topped three hundred. Then on September 18, we recorded our largest spike in cases: twenty-three in one day. This was attributed to an outbreak in the Caroline Detention Center, a former regional women’s jail leased by the county to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). This facility currently houses 163 federal detainees and employs a number of county residents. The spike could have a significant impact on future COVID-19 statistics. Meanwhile, many events that discourage social distancing were cancelled this year. The nearby Kings Dominion amusement park never opened, and the State Fair of Virginia, which would have drawn tens of thousands of people to Caroline’s Meadow Event Park this week, will not take place. More people are wearing masks now, compared to May and June.
We are aware that this is an election year and, in fact, early voting in Virginia opened up Friday. But there is little tangible evidence. I drove around Bowling Green Wednesday and saw dozens of lawn signs for the Town Council election, and one for incumbent Congressman Rob Wittman, but none for either Trump or Biden. Puzzled by this, I drove the streets of Belmont and Ladysmith Village but saw no political signs there either. The usual attack ads for one particularly hot congressional race and for a US Senate seat—Democrat Mark Warner v. Republican Daniel Glade—saturate TV in the Richmond area, but those are the only harbingers of November 3.
It is almost like most of us can’t wait for the election, and the rest of 2020 for that matter, to be over.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.