McKenzie Lambert and Susan Shibut, Potomac Local, December 15, 2019
The power to remove Virginia’s controversial Confederate monuments has been denied to localities under the Dillon Rule, which allows the state to limit the powers of local governments. But a new Democratic majority in the state legislature may open the door to Confederate monuments in the future.
Virginia has 110 Confederate monuments, many of which are housed in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. Among the most notable are the five towering monuments of Confederate leaders lining Monument Avenue. Others live in neighborhoods across the city from Church Hill to Bellevue. The city is home to significant Civil War buildings, including the American Civil War Museum and White House of the Confederacy.
Street names such as Confederate Avenue inhabit the Northside, while Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederacy, runs along the city and throughout the state. Schools such as John B. Cary Elementary — named after a Confederate soldier who later served as his district’s superintendent — and George Mason Elementary — named after a slave-owning Founding Father — still exist even though concern for renaming the schools has been articulated.
In recent years, residents have been pushing for the Monument Avenue monuments to come down. But the statues, which represent the dark and violent history of slavery for some Virginians and their families, stand tall, staring down the median of a prominent and busy avenue. This is in part because the power to remove the monuments has been denied to localities under the Dillon Rule, which allows the state to limit the powers of local governments. However, a new Democratic majority in Virginia’s state legislature may open the door to more local government control — and perhaps the removal of the monuments.
The Dillon Rule is derived from the 1868 written decision by Judge John Dillon of Iowa. Dillon identified local governments as political subdivisions of the state government.
Because Virginia law states that localities cannot remove war monuments after they have been established, the Dillon Rule has prevented localities such as Richmond and Charlottesville from passing measures to remove their Confederate monuments.
When the General Assembly resumes session in January, a Democratic majority would make it easier for legislators to make a new law stating that local governments have the power to remove Confederate monuments, or a law that bans them outright. John Aughenbaugh, assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said a new law is a way he could see localities gain the power to make their own decisions about the monuments.
“I don’t think many members of the General Assembly want to get blamed for upsetting those who still like the monuments,” Aughenbaugh said. “But they’ll be willing to go ahead and give the local governments the authority to make that decision on their own.”
In recent years, the Richmond City Council voted against two resolutions brought by Councilman Michael Jones requesting that state lawmakers give the city authority on what to do with the monuments. The resolutions would have put pressure on lawmakers to give the city authority. However, the General Assembly is not the only avenue for localities to gain the power to remove their monuments. Aughenbaugh said he predicts a locality will sue for the right to remove their monuments and the Virginia Supreme Court will be the deciding body.
One city has already brought such a suit. Earlier this year, Norfolk filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, arguing that requiring the city to keep a Confederate monument was contrary to their freedom of speech. The suit has not been decided yet.
More than 1,800 Confederate symbols stand in 22 states as of February, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Virginia, with 262 Confederate symbols, has more than any other state and has removed 17 of its symbols since the racially-charged Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting in which nine African-Americans were murdered, the organization said.