As statues of Confederate generals have been toppled or ordered down across the American South, all still stand in West Virginia, the only state born out of the American Civil War.
One hundred fifty-seven years ago Saturday, West Virginia seceded from Virginia to join the Union and reject the Confederacy.
Across the state, there are 21 statues and memorials honoring Confederate generals and soldiers, according to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Like many monuments elsewhere, some of West Virginia’s were gifted by the United Daughters of the Confederacy during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.
“We always need to remember that the monuments always reflect the values of the community — the individuals or organizations that erected them and dedicated them originally,” says Boston-based historian Kevin Levin.
“One way to measure the progress — if you want to call it that — is to look at the places that are even debating this issue,” he says, noting that many of the efforts to remove statues are happening in urban areas with more diverse populations.
Much of the conversation in West Virginia has focused on Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate general who was born in present-day West Virginia. Jackson, who owned six slaves, is memorialized in more than a dozen states and is one of the most recognizable figures of the Civil War.
This week in West Virginia, the Harrison County Commission rejected a motion to remove a statue of Jackson that stands in front of the courthouse in downtown Clarksburg.
In Charleston, a bust and statue of Jackson are on display on the grounds of the state Capitol. A middle school in the city, where nearly half the students are Black, also bears Jackson’s name. Discussions are ongoing about renaming the school after influential Black educator Booker T. Washington or NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
Some who support memorials of Jackson argue that he should instead be judged by his deeds such as conducting Sunday School for enslaved Black people and encouraging literacy. The American Civil War Museum has said these facts serve as “a foundation for great misunderstanding” in allowing Confederate heritage activists to distance the South’s cause away from slavery.
West Virginia native and a professor of History at the College of Southern Maryland, Cicero Fain, also says considering figures like Jackson for their good deeds overlooks a fundamental question in the current debate over the monuments.
“The barometer by which one should judge a slaveholder is ‘Did he make the ultimate sacrifice and a shift away from the economic imperative — and instead embrace a moral imperative?’ And he didn’t,” Fain says.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice said this week the memorials at the state Capitol are an issue for the Legislature to decide but avoided saying whether he wants to see them taken down.
“From the standpoint of my personal beliefs, I don’t feel like — that — anyone should feel uncomfortable here. This is our capital. This is our state. This is our people,” he said a news briefing Wednesday.
But state code gives the authority to decide the fate of the statues on the Capitol grounds to a commission, which is partially appointed by the governor.