My advice to Loudoun’s BOS: Fund historical markers, memorials can come later

I’ve mentioned the concerns expressed here in Loudoun County with respect to the Confederate memorial on the courthouse square (here and here).   Most I have spoken with, locally. have called for additions to the courthouse lawn …  and not removal of any memorials. Last week, Leesburg Today ran a story noting an initiative at the county level toward that end:

York To Push For Slave, Union Memorial At Courthouse

It’s looking more likely a remembrance of slaves sold on the Loudoun County courthouse steps could be coming to Leesburg.

County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said Monday that he would ask his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 2 to support placing such a memorial on the courthouse grounds.

The commemoration could also note the history of Loudoun residents who fought for the Union army in the Civil War, York said, or that bit of history could be memorialized in another way.

The chairman also said he will ask the supervisors to approve a contribution of $50,000 in county funds toward the cost of the memorial or memorials. The money would be donated only after the rest of the fundraising was complete, York said, in the same way that the county dedicated $50,000 toward the creation of a Revolutionary War statue, which is scheduled be placed on the courthouse grounds this Veterans Day….

The article goes on to discuss an effort, backed by the local NAACP branch, to place a Virginia State marker at the courthouse:

Phillip Thompson, the branch’s president, said Monday that he was pleased with York’s proposal, but he also noted that a lot of work still would need to be done before any memorial comes to fruition.

He met with York and other county government and community leaders Aug. 18, and he said that the NAACP and the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee will aim first to ask the Virginia Board of Historic Resources to approve the placing of a state historical marker at the courthouse noting the slave sales and Underground Railroad recognition.

“That’s an easier initial push,” Thompson said of the silver-and-black markers, which are generally placed along the sides of roads….

Certainly a positive step forward in all regards.

However, I would offer some observations from my seat.  Some background for those not from Loudoun is in order.  The Revolutionary War memorial mentioned by York is the product of a long running project that began in 1999.  To put a memorial up, the project needed $325,000. Not until 2012 did the project reach it’s halfway funding mark.  In December 2013, the county voted a $50,000 grant, the same figure proposed by York for the proposed slave memorial, to complete the project.  And the project will reach fruition nearly two years later when the memorial is dedicated on Veterans Day later this year.

And that effort serves as a good teaching point.  The memorial is indeed something the county will be proud of in the future.  It will fill a role, noticeably lacking, in the county’s historical landscape.  But it required a decade and a half, significant fundraising efforts, and (what I have not covered for brevity) a lot of discussions.  My point?  Memorials are good things, but they require long gestation periods and generous resource allocations.  Furthermore, memorials might not have firm “grounding” in the community, leaving them less effective.

On the other hand, I like options offered in this case – historical markers.  In fact, I would prefer that the funds be offered as grants towards historical markers.  Grants… as in plural.

My role as a member of the Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee has given me some perspective on this.   Prior to the 150ths kicked off, there were twenty-seven historical markers, outside of those on the Balls Bluff battlefield, with substantial Civil War content.  During the sesquicentennial years, worked to place fifteen new markers in the county, an increase of over a third.  And there are two more “in the works.”  Of those markers, three (plus one of the pending markers) focused on unionist activity in Loudoun.  And three of the markers focused on wartime activity of slaves and free blacks, to include USCT.  That’s not counting the marker placed at the courthouse which, while trying to cram four years of wartime activity into 250 words, begins, “Before the war, the courthouse square was the location of slave auctions and militia recruiting activities.”

I don’t laud those achievements to say “our work is done.”  I bring those markers up to show, while progress has been made in public interpretation in the last five years there is much more to do.  For instance, we identified five other cemeteries which contained graves of USCT.  If we want to tell the complete story about Loudoun’s history, specific to the Civil War, and talk about slavery, then we should consider those sites for interpretation.

And that brings me back to that proposal from last week.  I’ve learned a lot in the last five years about how to use markers.  Likewise, I’ve learned some of the failings of memorials.  Not to say memorials are not needed.  Rather to say they are not always a good investment as compared to historical markers.  Going back to the Revolutionary War memorial, we see that will cost over $300,000.  Looking to the Mount Zion Cemetery marker featuring the USCT, that cost $2600.  The cemetery marker is part of a broader Virginia Civil War Trails system and thus is one in a larger, well-advertised, and established marker system.  And even more, the cemetery marker offers content which serves to educate where it stands.

I look at it this way – $50,000 would fund part of a memorial.  But $50,000 would go to fund almost twenty historical markers.  Those twenty markers would serve as direct educational products for the community.  If spent on such, that $50,000 would be an investment of sorts.  With placement those twenty markers could, by increasing community awareness and appreciation for the county’s history, pave the way for something substantial… perhaps on the courthouse lawn, though I’m thinking more so within the minds of the community.

One thought on “My advice to Loudoun’s BOS: Fund historical markers, memorials can come later

  1. Reminds me of the line from Bob Dylan’s song, “You better start swimmig, or you’ll sink like a stone. The times they are a changin!”Slave memorial in Loudon County, VA. 

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