Debate over statues, invocations in Isle of Wight continues

Published 2:39 pm Saturday, September 23, 2017

Controversy over the presence of a Confederate monument outside Isle of Wight County’s courthouse complex and its Board of Supervisors’ religious invocation policy dominated citizens’ time comments at the Board’s meeting on Thursday for the second month in a row. Speakers included Ashley Pedick, Maggie Richards, Robert Cornell, Ed Whitley, Keith Morris and John Conley.

All who spoke on the monument advocated against removing it, and most were residents of Isle of Wight County. However, Whitley and Morris both admitted to having traveled from Newport News and Suffolk, respectively, to speak on this issue.

The monument to the Confederate dead of Isle of Wight County is situated in front of the courts complex. The memorial was erected at the site in 1905. — FILE PHOTO

Whitley said that the monuments honor Confederate veterans such as his great-great-grandfather and two brothers, one of whom doesn’t have a headstone. He also told the story of Richard Poplurn, a black man who joined the 13th cavalry and was captured at Gettysburg.

“They [the Union] offered him his freedom, and that he could go home,” Whitley said. “He said he would only go home when his compatriots go home. They didn’t go to war to save slavery. They went to save their state, which their politicians asked them to do.”

Richards added that she felt no one had been bothered by Confederate monuments until the media drew attention to the issues, and accused members of the media of attempting to divide the nation. Cornell added that he thought the General Assembly had already decided the issue in 2005 when they passed a law prohibiting cities or counties from removing the monuments.

Pedick spoke on the invocation issue, and argued against eliminating the board’s policy, claiming that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

When it came time for the board members to address the citizens’ concerns they had heard, Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson confirmed that the General Assembly had indeed passed a law against removing Confederate monuments, but said that the discussion the board should have is how to prevent racist groups from coming to the county and disturbing the peace as they did in Charlottesville.

“We can come up with a permitting process so we know who plans to come and assemble in front of the monument,” he said. “The monument itself isn’t the problem, but what happened in Charlottesville, we’re trying to avoid that in Isle of Wight County. When you go to a history class, you don’t bring a gun, you don’t bring a grenade, you don’t come with the mentality to divide and conquer.”

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty agreed, saying, “We want to look at things and ways to protect our community from the divisive nature of any group that’s racist or would bring any type of animosity to this community. We would not stand for that.”

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice responded to Pedick’s concerns over the invocation policy, explaining that the fourth circuit court has ruled that the way the county does its invocation could be challenged.

“We want to be in compliance with the law, but we will begin our meetings with an invocation of some sort,” he assured her.