33ºF

Virginia governor candidates Gillespie, Northam disagree on Confederate questions

What to do with historic statues the emotional issue of the campaign

ROANOKE, Va. – The "future" of the Confederacy in Virginia is clearly the most emotional issue in this year's governor's race. While health care is important, along with the environment and gun control, nothing strikes a nerve like what to do with our Confederate statues.

With the sound of the fatal conflict of Charlottesville still ringing in our ears, we can still hear in the background the steady drumbeat of history at places like VMI, where Gen. Stonewall Jackson was a professor; to this day, marching cadets salute his statue and study his genius on the battlefield.

From courthouse statues across the Commonwealth, to skirmishes over the Confederate flag, where you stand in the midst of the rift is as defining for voters as any other issue in Virginia in 2017.

"As Virginians we've always been at the forefront of American history from our very founding, literally at Jamestown. It doesn't mean we've always been on the right side of American history. When you're on the side of preserving the evil institution of slavery, you're on the wrong side. But that is our history. And we need to teach it. My view is that the statues should stay up, " said Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor.

In an interview in Lexington, Democrat Ralph Northam said he believes recent events in Charlottesville that left a counter-protester and two state police officers dead are more than enough reason to remove the statues.  

"You know we had a tremendous, horrific tragedy in Charlottesville ... just a beautiful town and our wonderful University of Virginia and we had a group of white supremacists march into Charlottesville with their torches and shields and semiautomatic weapons spewing hatred and bigotry and we lost two state troopers.  We lost a young lady who was hit by a vehicle," Northam said.

When challenged on his position about the historic value of the statues, Gillespie agreed that proper precautions would be necessary in the future. 

"What we saw in Charlottesville was horrific. And let's remember to that 90 percent of those people were not Virginians. They invaded our Commonwealth and invaded that great city," he said.

Even Roanoke, with only a single Confederate statue, has not been spared. Vandals painted the monument to Robert E. Lee in Lee Park. City officials are engaged in a conversation about how to handle the situation.

The candidates, however, are not waffling on their positions.  Perhaps surprising for Northam, who attended VMI.  

"For a white person like myself to march at the arch of VMI and saluting Stonewall Jackson, perhaps I don't think about it as much as, for example, an African-American.  And as you know, we had the ratline. We have people yelling and hollering and putting people in line. For an African-American to walk out the arch being yelled at by white men to salute a statue that is a man who fought for the institution of slavery, they may look at that a little bit differently and I think we have to sit down at a table and hear everybody's positions," Northam said.

Gillespie wants to add statues of African Americans who've had pivotal roles in Virginia's history, like Booker T. Washington, and even Doug Wilder -- the nation's first black governor.

"We should add historical context to them... My opponent believes that they should come down. I would keep them up and add historical context.  I would also add more statues so that we can teach about as well; where we've been on the right side of history," Gillespie explained.

Though Stonewall's battles may have been fought more than a century and a half ago, it seems that even today, they are determining the course of Virginia's future.


About the Author: