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Potential Confederate monument referendum stirring debate in Floyd County

Potential Confederate monument referendum stirring debate in Floyd County

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FLOYD — The Floyd County Board of Supervisors will soon decide whether to put the status of the courthouse Confederate monument to a November referendum — as the county Electoral Board warns of potential voter intimidation while a majority recently spoke in favor of preserving the statue.

Every parking spot was occupied at the county Administration building Tuesday morning and residents crowded into the lobby prior to the supervisors’ meeting.

After taking no action at that meeting, the clock is ticking on the supervisors, who must file a ballot request with the circuit court by Aug. 14.

Prior to opening this week’s meeting to public comment, board Chairman Joe Turman said, “I will not condone any vulgarity, bashing or disrespect for the board or anyone involved. We’re all supposed to be friends and neighbors.”

During the public comment period, more than twice as many people spoke in favor of preserving the monument as supported removing it — 13 people took the general position that the monument should stay, while six spoke in favor of removing it, most of whom said it could simply be moved to a more appropriate location, such as a cemetery or museum. A couple of people who spoke in favor of keeping the monument, however, lived outside Floyd County.

To conduct the meeting in accordance with public health guidelines established during the pandemic, supervisors allowed three people at once to be in the primary meeting room, while the rest were asked to wait in the lobby for their turn to speak. The lobby was equipped with a video screen live-streaming the meeting, but attendees complained that the audio was too quiet and the stream was repeatedly buffering. Only two speakers into the public comment period, three unhappy residents interrupted the proceedings to request that the meeting be adjourned and the public comment period rescheduled for another time when more attendees could be accommodated.

Eventually the public comment period resumed. Those who spoke in support of removing the monument cited the history of Confederate monuments in the South, including the fact that many were installed during the Jim Crow era to intimidate Black Southerners and reinforce ideas of white supremacy. Some speakers shared experiences of intimidation and racism that persist in Floyd County to this day.

Edna Whittier, who helps to organize Floyd’s annual celebration on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, said organizers have to be careful about how widely they publicize it each year, in fear of “white supremacist backlash.” Whittier favors moving the monument to the Phlegar House or to land near the Hotel Floyd where some Confederate memorials already exist.

Several members of the public who want to preserve the monument spoke passionately about their families’ history in Virginia and their ancestors who fought in the Civil War. In their view, Confederate monuments are unrelated to racism or even the South fighting to preserve slavery, but a way to honor the sacrifice of past soldiers.

Karen Baker, who spoke in favor of removing the monument, said: “Both sides are right, that’s the issue here. People don’t want a symbolism of Jim Crow; they want their ancestors honored.”

Steven McClain, who told supervisors he is a native Virginian whose roots date back to the 1640s, said he believes in the right to free speech even when he doesn’t agree with the speakers — as in the case of those who organized a recent Floyd Black Lives Matter vigil — and called Confederate flag-bearer Roger Altizer — who caused commotion at the vigil — an example of “pure racism.” He favored keeping the monument in honor of his family members who died in the Civil War.

Kielen Gale, who temporarily joined Altizer at the vigil, said there is a deep history of conservatism in Floyd County, and “conservatives don’t want to defend themselves.”

Richard Dimmel, who previously served as spokesperson for the Concerned Citizens of Floyd, the group broadly responsible for a militia muster call in January, talked about his military service.

“Today, I believe our country is under attack by the radical left,” Dimmel said.

Others compared attempts to remove the Confederate monument, which they equated with erasing history, to Marxism and socialism.

Town Councilman David Whitaker told supervisors they took an oath to uphold the Constitution and are “obligated to carry out the will of the people.”

Businessman Jack Wallcountered, arguing that regardless of how the majority of the county feels about the monument, because marginalized people have expressed that the monument is oppressive to them, the county government should do “what’s right and what’s proper” and remove it.

Representatives from Floyd CARE, including Sierra Little, a Black woman who graduated from Floyd County High School and is now raising her daughter in Floyd, presented supervisors with a resolution to remove the monument, on which the organization is hoping the board will vote.

“My ancestors were raped, beaten, killed, hung — I don’t want to go to my courthouse and be reminded of that,” Little said.

She said she hoped to be a liaison between the supervisors and the Black community in Floyd, adding that, “My community, some of them are afraid to speak out.”

Tuesday’s meeting came a week after the three-member county Electoral Board sent a letter to the supervisors expressing concern that putting the Confederate monument to a referendum this fall would impede the board’s ability to conduct a free and fair election.

Electoral Board Secretary Tammy Belinsky said voter intimidation is a concern.

The supervisors will next meet on July 28.

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