The statue of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson on the state Capitol grounds will remain where it is for now, but the debate over its future will continue.
The 2021 legislative session ended with members of the state Senate allowing to die in committee a bill protecting statues of Confederate soldiers from being removed or relocated from public places. The House of Delegates had approved such a bill, but senators declined to act on it.
That was for the best. The fate of statues and other public property honoring the Confederacy is best left up to individual communities.
The main focus of this bill was on the Jackson statue on the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds. The fate of that statue hasn’t been the only such question modern West Virginians have had to face in recent years pertaining to how it honors Confederate generals (or doesn’t), but it has been the most difficult to solve.
While protests and vandalism aimed at Confederate statues were reported in a few areas before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, such concerns in West Virginia have been resolved peacefully. Jackson’s name was removed from a middle school on the West Side of Charleston, and after months of deliberation, Marshall University removed the name of Confederate Gen. Albert Gallatin Jenkins from a building on its campus. Perhaps by coincidence, both events came during the same week in July 2020.
West Virginia was created during the Civil War. It was part of the Union, but many people here still fly the Confederate flag. Of the states whose histories were affected by the war, West Virginia probably was and remains the most divided about it.
The reality is that most West Virginians probably don’t care about the Stonewall Jackson statue at the Capitol because they rarely see it. The statue was erected at the site of the previous capitol in 1910, when some West Virginians still remembered Jackson or perhaps fought under his command. It was moved to its present location when the current capitol was built in the 1930s and was placed in a highly visible location along Kanawha Boulevard. Some historians say it was put there because that was the part of Capitol grounds closest to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
Since then, foot traffic has moved to the other side of the Capitol, where parking and the state office buildings are. Nowadays you have to go out of your way to find Jackson’s statue. Given the speed of traffic on the boulevard and the trees on the Capitol grounds, you might miss it if you’re driving by.
Thus it was wise of the Senate to set the bill aside as it dealt with the crush of other, more important matters in the session’s final days.
Writing the future of the statue into law is not the best idea because it ties the state government’s hands on matters pertaining to Jackson and others who participated in the Confederacy. The Capitol Building Commission controls the Capitol grounds, but so far it has avoided any decision on the future of the statue or of the Jackson bust in the Capitol rotunda. Neither the commission nor Gov. Jim Justice wants to be the one making the decision. They mustn’t be allowed to avoid their responsibility forever.
The governor and the commission must now determine whether people today are obligated to honor their predecessors’ decision to memorialize Stonewall Jackson. Were there no statue of him on Capitol grounds today, would West Virginians want to place one there? Probably not.