Debate over plaque lingers
CHARLES TOWN – The debate over a plaque placed on the wall of the Jefferson County Courthouse in 1986 continued Thursday at the meeting of the Jefferson County Commission. The plaque, placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, reads in part that the plaque is placed “in honor and memory of Confederate soldiers.”
In September, a group of six African American women, writing under the alleged auspices of the Marshall-Holley-Mason American Legion Auxiliary Unit #102 in Shepherdstown, called for a quiet removal of the plaque. The letter was denounced by the American Legion and those who wrote it later confirmed that they were not speaking on behalf of the Auxiliary Unit, but rather themselves.
The spokesperson for the women, Linda Ballard, addressed commissioners again Thursday after submitting several questions about how the plaque came to be placed on the courthouse wall.
In addition, a question of the legality of the plaque’s placement was brought into question.
Peter Onoszko, president of the commission, indicated that if the plaque was there illegally, it would come down. But Nathan Cochran, attorney for the commission, said that the plaque did not fall under a section of the West Virginia Code that addressed historical statues, buildings or monuments.
“The code reference does not apply,” Cochran said. “It isn’t a monument, building or structure.”
Cochran went on to say that in other portions of the Code, control over plaques and markers placed on government buildings would fall under the Commission authority.
Upon receiving the legal opinion, Onoszko stated that the vote had been cast on Sept. 7, 5-0 to leave the plaque and that was the end of the discussion as far as he was concerned.
Those final comments came long after public comment on the issue raged ahead earlier in the meeting.
Ramona Welsing, chair of the West Virginia Chapter of the Liberty Political Action committee, presented a petition to the commission asking that a resolution be approved to protect all existing monuments, plaques and other historical markers.
“The past cannot change,” Welsing said. “We can only learn from it.”
Several speakers concurred with her request to adopt a resolution including Jefferson County resident Kevin Tester.
“It is important to maintain history. The soldiers are U.S. soldiers and we do a disservice to them by taking the plaque down,” Tester said.
Curt Compton, another county resident, called the whole thing a “trendy social activism issue.”
The issue has been addressed in several national newspapers and Charles Town Mayor Scott Rogers told the commissioners he was afraid of potential violence coming to Charles Town.
“The potential for violence concerns me,” Rogers said. “I don’t believe the plaque should be on the courthouse but moved to another location like a quiet county park.”
Rogers went on to say that a compromise could be reached by placing a plaque that is inclusive of all soldiers of Jefferson County who fought during the Civil War.
Polly Wharton, a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy who was involved with the placement of the plaque, spoke saying that the plaque was never intended to cause conflict.
“At the time (in 1986) the National organization was honoring Confederate veterans,” Wharton said. “That’s why we placed the plaque.”
She shared that the United Daughters of the Confederacy does not promote using symbols as tools of hate. She went on to say that the chapter has agreed to consent to the plaque’s removal if the commission so desires it be removed.
“We would like it back or to be present if you put it somewhere else,” Wharton said.
Ballard spoke during public comment and again at the time of the agenda item on the plaque, calling again for removal of the plaque to someplace other than the courthouse.
She accused commissioners of creating an issue when the initial letter asked that the plaque simply be moved without fanfare.
Ballard asked all those in the packed room who believed the plaque should be removed to stand to show their support. Nine individuals of approximately 35 stood.
Ballard shared that she had submitted questions to the commission regarding the placement of the plaque, as far as who approved it and how it got to be in its current location. Onoszko, speaking honestly, said that he did not know the answers to her questions.
“If I was your teacher and gave you eight questions and you said you ‘don’t know’ to six of them, you’d fail,” Ballard said to Onoszko. She went on to accuse Onoszko of name calling when he previously referred to “radical minority” groups around the country.
Also speaking to the name calling was Gloria Lindsey, another of the group of women initially requesting the plaque be removed.
“I don’t understand the name calling,” she said. “We’ve been called disrespectful, radicals, minorities.”
Ballard agreed, saying that people calling names are trying to incite violence.
“It is a disgrace to the county that you five are representing this county,” Ballard concluded.
Commissioner Josh Compton indicated he will present a resolution at the next scheduled meeting to protect all historical markers and monuments.