CHARLESTON — With the demise of legislation that would have made it a crime to remove or relocate Confederate statuary from public places, proponents of moving a Stonewall Jackson statue and bust from prominent locations at the West Virginia Capitol Complex are recommitting their efforts.
The bill, titled the West Virginia Monument and Memorial Protection Act, passed the House of Delegates on a 70-28 vote March 19, but it was never taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I think we really need to keep up the pressure on this,” the Rev. David Fryson, lawyer, pastor of New First Baptist Church in Charleston and retired diversity director at West Virginia University, said Tuesday.
Fryson testified at a Capitol Building Commission public hearing on the statuary in December, but the commission did not take action on requests to relocate the statue on the southeast side of the Capitol grounds and the bust of Jackson in the Capitol Rotunda.
Fryson said the inaction is a result of Gov. Jim Justice and Art, Culture and History curator Randall Reid-Smith passing the buck on the issue.
“They’ve really been playing a shell game,” Fryson said. “Justice acts like he doesn’t have the power to do anything, and then Reid-Smith says it’s up to the governor.”
Under existing law, the Capitol Building Commission has authority over “substantive physical changes to the grounds and buildings of the state Capitol Complex.”
However, Reid-Smith told members of the House Government Organization Committee that he does not believe the commission has authority over statuary on the Capitol grounds because the code does not specifically use the word “monuments.”
The monuments protection bill would have made it illegal to remove or relocate Confederate statuary without state authorization, and it would have required entities to obtain a permit from the state Historic Preservation Office — an office under Reid-Smith’s control.
Howard Swint, a commercial Realtor and longtime advocate of relocating the statuary, said Monday he believes the bill was crafted to assure those permits would never be issued. He also said claims that the Capitol Building Commission does not have authority to approve placement or removal of statuary at the Capitol Complex is absurd.
“It was a ridiculous interpretation of the law that flies in the face of good government policy,” Swint said.
Swint added that planning is underway for a new push to relocate the Jackson statue and bust, but said he is not heading up the effort.
“Some things are brewing,” he said.
James Cochran, organizer of West Virginians Against Confederate Commemoration, said Monday that after the protection bill passed the House by a wide margin, he assumed it would pass the Senate and become law. He said he was caught by surprise when it died in committee.
“I don’t have any immediate plans to take further action,” said Cochran, who led a petition drive that collected more than 10,000 signatures calling for removal of the statue.
Fryson said it is unfortunate that state leaders are failing to seriously address concerns of their constituents.
“The more we can keep this issue before the public, the more we can continue to have the conversation, the more untenable it is for West Virginia to keep paying homage to the secessionist movement,” he said.
Fryson said state leaders’ embracing of Confederate statuary sends the wrong message to young West Virginians.
“Our young people want to be part of the 21st century, while we’re fighting 19th-century battles,” he said.