Roanoke County Circuit Judge Charles N. Dorsey ordered the removal of a Confederate statue from the front of the Roanoke County courthouse last month.
And if the statue isn’t moved, the court must be moved to a different location, he said.
The judge’s action is the latest skirmish in the ongoing fight over Confederate symbols at Virginia courthouses.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 60 courthouses across the commonwealth that have a soldier statue or other memorials to those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Last year, a lawyer defending a Black man convicted of drug charges sought to raise “the Confederate defense,” arguing that a jury was influenced by the Confederate statue outside the Giles County courthouse when it gave a sentence well over the commonwealth’s sentencing guidelines.
In Salem, site of the Roanoke County courthouse, a Confederate soldier statue sits in front of the old courthouse, on the corner of Main Street and College Avenue.
The current courthouse is adjacent to the old courthouse, which is now used as a classroom building by Roanoke College. Roanoke College has offered to fund the removal of the statue and started the Not Our Monument Project to “[create] a space for current students, faculty, and staff to react and respond to the presence of the Confederate monument on our campus.” The project aims to use the feedback to contextualize the monument.
But the land where the statue sits is county property and it is right next to the present modern courthouse. Dorsey found that unacceptable.
In a July 8 order, Dorsey wrote, “In this instance, the Court certifies that the continued presence of the confederate monument, in its present location on Roanoke County property, and with its present content, obstructs the proper administration of justice in the Roanoke County Courthouse.”
In making his decision, Dorsey said the court would be unable to operate in the future with the statue present, saying either the court must be moved to a different location or the statue removed.
“The lesser hardship of these two options is the removal of the confederate monument,” Dorsey wrote. “The Court further finds that any inconvenience in accomplishing this goal is small compared to the rights involved in the administration of justice.”
According to an etching on the back of the monument, the statue, which depicts a Confederate infantryman, was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or UDC, in 1909 in memory of the Confederate soldiers of Roanoke County.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center study of Virginia monuments, the UDC sponsored or co-sponsored 27 monuments in front of courthouses.
When Roanoke College purchased the old courthouse in 1987, the plot containing the monument was not part of the purchase agreement, leaving the monument under county control. As such, moving the statue requires board approval.
Roanoke County Attorney Peter Lubeck said in an email on Aug. 17 that the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors “is presently considering the good Judge’s order, and potential next steps forward.”
In a June 29 letter to Dorsey, Roanoke County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jason Peters wrote that the board “would like to be able to fully consider, with the public, all potential options before deciding on a course of action.”
Dorsey’s order says the court will defer taking additional formal action on the issue until Jan. 2, 2022, unless addressed by intervening court order.
Symbols convey the power of meaning. No one would suggest a Confederate flag or monument has any place in a courtroom,” said Judge Charles N. Dorsey. “The meaning conveyed by this statue due to its proximity to the Roanoke County Courthouse and being on Roanoke County property is, likewise, completely antithetical to the proper administration of justice.
Attached to the order is a letter from Dorsey to Peters. Dated June 23, the letter details Dorsey’s reasoning for taking this stance as well. “There is a legal, intellectual, and moral imperative to move this statue with all deliberate speed,” he said.
“Symbols convey the power of meaning. No one would suggest a Confederate flag or monument has any place in a courtroom,” Dorsey wrote in the letter. “The meaning conveyed by this statue due to its proximity to the Roanoke County Courthouse and being on Roanoke County property is, likewise, completely antithetical to the proper administration of justice.” Dorsey added that it is “shameful” to expect the legal professionals of Roanoke County “to continue that service to the public in the shadow of a Confederate monument that is not 40 yards from the exterior wall of the present courthouse.”
Dorsey’s letter also details the history of the Civil War as well as post-war monuments to the Confederacy. Citing multiple historians, Dorsey states that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War and that monuments built after the war’s end are “tied to the mythology of the Lost Cause – the way many white Americans have chosen to view history following the Civil War.”
“In order to make this part of the judicial system of Virginia more legitimate to all those whom we serve, this small statue with its large, ugly message must be removed,” Dorsey wrote.