When Vernessa Ware was growing up in Bowling Green in the 1950s and 60s, there were symbols of a massive divide between whites and Blacks in the town just about everywhere she looked.
Ware attended segregated schools. She recalls a “whites only” water fountain on Main Street and a movie theater in which whites sat downstairs while Blacks were relegated to the balcony.
Ware slowly saw those signs of division disappear.
The retired Caroline High School business teacher had another reason to rejoice, as what she considers an additional reminder of the area’s dark past was removed.
The monument of a generic Confederate soldier that had stood tall on the Caroline County courthouse lawn for 114 years was dismantled and relocated to nearby Greenlawn Cemetery on Saturday morning.
Onlookers on Main Street cheered as the 24 pieces of the monument were taken apart one-by-one, while one man standing on Courthouse Lane said it was “a sad day,” for the county.
“I tell you right now I’m so happy because it was something that was always there when we were growing up,” said Ware, who is Black. “It was a sore spot because it was a reminder of slavery to all of us who lived in Bowling Green or went there to shop.”
The 43-ton monument had stood since 1906, when it was donated to the county by the Bowling Green United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The Virginia General Assembly granted local governments the authority to remove any symbols of the Confederacy with a bill that was passed in March and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in April. The new law went into effect July 1.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 102 symbols of Confederate iconography have been changed across the nation since George Floyd’s death during an arrest by Minneapolis police in May. Virginia leads all states with 40 removals of Confederate statues or name changes of institutions.
“It’s a great day for Caroline,” the Rev. Duane Fields Sr. said. “I think Caroline has finally made an effort to be on the right side of history.”
A SPEEDY PROCESS
Two weeks after the new law went into effect, Fields, Ware and seven other Caroline residents spoke at a Board of Supervisors meeting requesting the monument’s removal.
Lydell Fortune presented a petition that was eventually signed by more than 2,500 county residents and nonresidents.
The board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing the following month.
On Aug. 11, the board voted 4–2 not to place the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot with a nonbinding referendum.
At the end of the Aug. 25 public hearing, the board unanimously decided to relocate the memorial to what members deemed a more appropriate place.
“I believe that not only does the physical removal of this monument mean a lot, but the psychological removal of shackles means a lot, too,” Fortune said. “Growing up, my parents and folks that lived in Caroline all their lives had some hesitation saying what they really felt about certain things. Now they see that if we come together on the right side of history, things can change here in the county.”
VOLUNTEERS STEP UP
While Fortune led the charge to have the board vote for removal, the physical change was facilitated by Caroline County building official Kevin Wightman and a crew of more than 20 volunteers.
They gathered on the courthouse lawn about 7 a.m. and it took approximately four hours to bring the structure down.
The soldier itself went first. The wear and tear of standing more than a century was evident. The pins that held the statue’s pieces together were no more and the materials that conjoined the parts were decimated.
After the volunteers managed to get the monument down to its base, there were names inscribed of those who were on hand when it was first erected.
Caroline Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Sili said relocating the statue presents an opportunity for preservation, as new pins and other binding materials will be added.
“It’s a chance to put everything back that over time has gone away,” Sili said.
Sili and fellow board member Jeff Black said the county’s resolution to the issue is a “win–win” for those who wanted the statue removed and citizens who wanted it to remain.
Black noted that many were concerned about cost. Four estimates the county received ranged in price from approximately $170,000 to $260,000.
Wightman requested a budget of $25,000 from County Administrator Charles Culley, but said by the end of removal Saturday, he had spent less than $6,000, and he didn’t expect that figure to increase dramatically.
Wightman noted the high estimates were from out-of-town companies that would have had to pay for everything from lodging to hourly wages for workers.
Caroline received a foundation at the cemetery from local construction company G.H. Watts. Another county man, Ray Kidd, donated a forklift. Trailers, straps and plywood for dunnage were also provided at no cost.
“This is Caroline County,” Wightman said. “We take care of our own and we’re fully capable.”
SETTING THE PACE
Volunteers included Sheriff Tony Lippa, who wore a “Caroline Strong” T-shirt under his work vest.
Lippa said he participated as an effort to unify residents on both sides of the issue.
Many comments in the Facebook group “We the Towns People of Bowling Green” expressed displeasure the monument was being relocated.
Still, Black said Caroline can be used as an example for other localities that will be faced with what to do with Confederate monuments in public spaces, especially with how the county trimmed the cost.
Neighboring Essex County has a virtual public hearing on a similar memorial that’s erected near its courthouse on Nov. 12.
“It doesn’t have to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to do this,” Black said. “If you have people that are skilled, you can take them down and move them to a more appropriate place if their governing body decides to do that. I really think this is an example of how it can be done and done in a cheap manner.”
Bill Farmer, chairman of the Greenlawn Cemetery board, said the installation of the monument at its new home is expected to be completed sometime next week. The cemetery is on a winding back road off East Broaddus Avenue in Bowling Green and not visible from the street.
Farmer said it has a vast number of Confederate soldiers’ remains that were reinterred from Fort A.P. Hill after the federal government acquired 110,000 acres (now 77,000) from the county to establish the Army training facility in 1941.
Farmer said he wasn’t in favor of removal, but is glad descendants of the memorialized Confederate soldiers will still be able to visit it.
“Whether you’re for it staying or for it moving, at least it was done in a dignified and respectful way,” Farmer said. “Hopefully we can move on from here.”
Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526