Daily Press

Some Confederat­e symbols still travel Virginia roads

DMV offers license plates with the likeness of Gen. Robert E. Lee

- By Ana Ley Staff Writer

State Democrats, fueled by the biggest protest movement of a generation, have toppled dozens of Confederat­e symbols in the past year across this former rebel stronghold.

But this is Virginia, a historical­ly conservati­ve Southern state whose culture has been profoundly shaped by its place in the Civil War. It has more tributes to the Confederac­y than anywhere else in the country. And even as Virginia sheds many, a prominent one remains on its roads.

The Department of Motor Vehicles still offers commemorat­ive plates printed with the image of “The Virginia Gentleman” Gen. Robert E. Lee, who served in the U.S. Army before resigning and joining the Confederac­y. As of this week, there were 1,776 active

registrati­ons with the plates.

That frustrates Roanoke resident and public relations specialist Lon Wagner, who wrote to state transporta­tion officials to call for its removal.

“I can’t believe it’s still available,” Wagner said in a phone interview. “It’s an embarrassm­ent.”

According to nationwide data recorded by the Southern Poverty Law Center in early 2019, Virginia had, at the time, 283 Confederat­e symbols. Georgia had the secondmost, at 229 symbols, and Texas was third at 202.

“Half of the battles in the war (were) fought in Virginia,” said Larry McCluney Jr., the commander in chief of the Sons of Confederat­e Veterans and a vocal critic of the movement to take down statues and memorials. “What do people want to do — erase it and make it seem like it never happened?”

Wagner, who stumbled upon the commemorat­ive plate while helping his daughter register her vehicle, heard back from DMV Commission­er Richard D. Holcomb, who encouraged him to reach out to lawmakers. Taking the plate out of circulatio­n, Holcomb explained, would require changes in state law.

So Wagner sent an email to Sen. Louise Lucas, a Portsmouth Democrat whose role in the removal of that city’s downtown Confederat­e monument was widely publicized in the wake of a demonstrat­ion that led to much political fallout there. He hasn’t heard back, and attempts by The Pilot to reach her office were unsuccessf­ul.

The state once offered tags bearing Virginia’s Confederat­e battle flag, but they were recalled in 2015 following a federal judge’s decision.

Motorists were given a replacemen­t bearing the Sons of Confederat­e Veterans name, which are still in circulatio­n. The DMV says there are 690 active registrati­ons with the new design.

Some refused to send their battle-flag plates back. DMV spokeswoma­n Brandy Brubaker said they stopped being valid as of Oct. 4, 2015, and it’s against the law to operate a vehicle with a canceled license plate.

A movement begins

In May, the killing of George Floyd — a Black man who pleaded for help as a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapoli­s — launched the nation’s most significan­t protest movement since the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s.

People around the country gathered by the thousands to demand that police be held accountabl­e and to urge Americans to reckon with systemic racism. In Virginia, demonstrat­ors took aim at the state’s Confederat­e monuments. Many have called them memorials to a racist cause that fought to preserve slavery, while defenders say they only honor the dead.

Lee’s legacy, in particular, is a frequent subject of debate.

To some, he was a complicate­d man of his time who shouldn’t be judged solely by his contributi­ons to American slavery.

To others, he was nothing more than responsibl­e for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in defense of white supremacy.

To soften that history, some scholars argue, is to further a propaganda campaign which helped Southerner­s build the foundation­s for the Jim Crow system.

The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report last month which revealed 168 Confederat­e symbols were renamed or removed from public spaces in 2020 across the United States.

Virginia removed 71, more than any other state, followed by North Carolina at 24. Alabama and Texas tied for third place at 12.

All but one of the removals happened after Floyd’s death on May 25. Virginia had replaced Lee-Jackson Day with Election Day in April.

The SPLC says that today, more than 2,100 Confederat­e symbols are still in public view across the country, including 704 monuments. The others include government buildings, statues, plaques, markers, schools, parks, counties, cities, military property and streets and highways named after anyone associated with the Confederac­y.

Portsmouth’s downtown monument, at the intersecti­on of Court and High streets, sits near a site where slaves were punished on a whipping post. The city started taking it down Aug. 26.

Last month, state lawmakers passed bills to change the name of U.S. Route 1 in Virginia from Jefferson Davis Highway to Emancipati­on Highway and to remove a statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square in Richmond. A Democrat, Byrd served as Virginia’s governor before spending decades in the U.S. Senate, where he opposed racial integratio­n in public schools.

The bills now head to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

“Racism and its symbols, obvious and subtle, have no place in this new Virginia decade,” the latter bill’s sponsor, Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, said in a prepared statement. “Monuments to segregatio­n, Massive Resistance, and the subjugatio­n of one race below another, such as the Byrd statue, serve only as a reminder of the overt and institutio­nal racism that has and continues to plague our Commonweal­th.”

 ?? COURTESY PHOTO ?? A Gen. Robert E. Lee license plate offered by Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
COURTESY PHOTO A Gen. Robert E. Lee license plate offered by Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
 ?? COURTESY PHOTO ?? A Sons of Confederat­e Veterans license plate offered by Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
COURTESY PHOTO A Sons of Confederat­e Veterans license plate offered by Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

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