Petition calls for removal of ‘Johnny Reb’ statue in front of Albemarle Courthouse

Removal of statue could come into conflict with Virginia law

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The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the Johnny Reb statue in 1909 to honor Confederate soldiers of the Civil War.

Callie Collins | Cavalier Daily

A public petition demanding the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to remove the “Johnny Reb” statue in front of the Albemarle County Courthouse has been signed by over 400 people. 

In 1909, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the “Johnny Reb” statue to honor the Confederate soldiers that fought during the Civil War.  

The petition, published Oct. 8, has a goal of 500 signatures. Petition creator Matthew Christensen — a Charlottesville community member and social worker — said he hopes that the petition will force the Board of Supervisors to respond and inform the community of their view on the subject. 

“This statue is sitting there shadowing the Albemarle County Courthouse and that really just takes away that idea of equal justice for all,” Christensen said in an interview. “You’re putting up a monument for people who fought to enslave human beings of color. And, you’re asking them to walk right past this statue and then also the Jackson statue and hope that they can still get equal justice in courts — which, you can see, is not usually the case.”

In the petition, Christensen outlined four demands for the supervisors. The petition calls on the board to agree that the statue goes against the values of justice espoused by the court and vote to remove the statue. 

The petition also demands that if the statue removal could not come to a vote, the board would attempt to change any law that would prohibit the statue from being removed. Lastly, Christensen demanded the Board of Supervisors support efforts to promote equality and justice in the judicial system.

Confederate statues have been at the center of numerous debates in the Charlottesville community in recent years.

In 2016, Zyahna Bryant — at the time a Charlottesville High School freshman — started an online petition to take down the Robert E. Lee statue in what is now known as Market Street Park.

After City Council voted in February 2017 to remove the Lee statue, several organizations including the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Monument Fund filed a lawsuit to keep the statue in its original location. The lawsuit is currently in Charlottesville Circuit Court. 

When white nationalists came to Charlottesville in August 2017 for the “Unite the Right” rally, one of their claims was that they were protesting the removal of the Lee statue. The violent rally ultimately led to the death of one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, as well as two Virginia State Police officers in a helicopter crash.  

No physical demonstrations have occured in protest of the Johnny Reb statue. 

Now, the petition to remove the Johnny Reb statue faces an upward battle, as it is likely to confront a Virginia statutory law that prohibits the removal or disturbance of war memorials.

The law in question states that “it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected, or to prevent its citizens from taking proper measures and exercising proper means for the protection, preservation and care of same.” 

In January, Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) and Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) introduced bills to the General Assembly of Virginia urging revision of this same law, with the intention of using it to remove the Lee statue in Charlottesville. Revisions would have allowed the cities to have more power over Confederate statues in their locals. However, no proposed changes to the state law have been successful thus far. 

Rick Randolph, who represents the Scottsville District on the Board of Supervisors, told The Cavalier Daily that he is not opposed to the removal of the statue and the petition in general, but is constrained by the state law from removing it.

“As far as the Board of Supervisors is concerned we take an oath of office to uphold the laws of the Federal Constitution and then the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Randolph said. “Our hands are basically tied by this state law.”

Randolph spoke to the importance of the state government on this issue, noting that both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly are controlled by Republicans who have been opposed to the removal of statues.  Several statue-related proposals have failed to gain enough support to pass the General Assembly, including one sponsored by Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) that died in a House of Delegates subcommittee.

“If there was a volcanic, galvanic change in terms of how downstate rural voters decided to view the Republican Party — then maybe, with controlling Democrats in both wings of the general assembly, we would see a change,” Randolph said.

However, without a political shift Randolph does not predict success for the petition.

“We will accept the petition of course but in terms of what we can do —  for the next step our hands are effectively tied,” Randolph said. “If we were to undertake any action that sought to remove or alter that statue … then there would be an organization out there that would take us to court and they would win.”

Christensen emphasized the importance of distinguishing between remembering and glorifying history in his interview, adding that the fact that these statues are in public places is a main part of the issue.

“We need to learn from our books, our teachers and museums — I think that’s the appropriate context,” Christensen said. “So if there’s a museum that wanted to take [the statue] I would be fine with that. But, beyond that, [the statues] need to be removed from public spaces. If they’re going to be anywhere they need to be in places where people need to make a conscious decision to see them.”

Despite his inability to remove the statue, Randolph said he agrees with Christensen that the statue needs to be properly contextualized.

“In the best of all possible worlds we would have changed Johnny Reb in terms of, at a minimum, ensuring that there was counterbalancing information that’s accurate as to the basis of the War Between the States instead of the Lost Cause narrative that is explicit in that statue,” Randolph said.

Other members of the Board of Supervisors did not return requests for comment on the petition. 

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