Joe Heim, Washington Post, November 23, 2017
It has been three months since five black women in Jefferson County wrote to the five white county commissioners asking for the removal of the small plaque that honors Confederate soldiers at the entrance to the county courthouse in Charles Town, about 60 miles northwest of Washington. The plaque, the women said, did not belong on a public building.
“The purpose of the Jefferson County Court House is to provide egalitarian services to all citizens in Jefferson County,” the women wrote in their Aug. 15 letter to commission president Peter Onoszko. “It is impossible to enter the courthouse to conduct business or to even vote without being taunted by its presence.”
The local weekly newspaper, the Spirit of Jefferson, has extensively chronicled the plaque debate — so much so that the most recent issue was the first since early September without a story about the plaque on the front page. Heated discussions fill the Facebook and Twitter feeds of local residents. A recent county commission meeting teetered on the edge of civility and order.
Critics say it honors those who fought for a cause that included the continued enslavement of blacks in America. They also point out that West Virginia was part of the Union, and there is no plaque on the courthouse honoring Union soldiers. Nor is there acknowledgment that enslaved people were once sold on the courthouse steps.
While the plaque remains on the courthouse wall, there have been developments that could affect how long it stays there. Polly Wharton, a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, which erected the plaque, told commissioners at a meeting last month that she would not object if it were taken down and placed elsewhere in the county on private land. Two commissioners — Patsy Noland, the lone Democrat, and Jane Tabb, a Republican — now say they want the plaque removed.
But Onoszko and the two other commissioners, Josh Compton and Caleb Hudson, say the plaque needs to stay where it is.
In an interview Tuesday, Onoszko described the debate over the plaque as a “tempest in a teapot.” He doesn’t expect the commission to take further action this year but says he is open to additional plaques being placed on the courthouse.
“The bottom line is that when things cool down, should somebody want to pursue putting another memorial up there to black soldiers, Union solders, slaves that were sold on the courthouse steps, what have you, we can consider that,” he said. “We can even move the Confederate plaque so it’s not front and center when you enter the courthouse.”
Onoszko, who was appointed to his seat last year, is up for election next year. He says the plaque issue benefits him.
“I’m on the side of the people on this issue,” he said. “Not 100 percent of the people, but the voting majority.”