Danville has owned the Sutherlin Mansion for 100 years, but a decision 20 years ago to allow the Heritage Preservation Association to construct a Confederate flag monument on the lawn near Main Street can’t be undone.
“[U]nder Virginia law, the city does not have the legal authority to remove the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History,” City Manager Joe King said in a midday news release Wednesday.
While the controversy ends with the ruling on state law, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History has damaged its relationship with the group that originally saved the Sutherlin Mansion from demolition — the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, according to the local UDC president.
The Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History asked City Council to remove the flag monument. In a letter to King dated Sept. 30, the museum’s executive director, Cara Burton, asked the city to remove the flag from the grounds, saying the museum’s board of directors had created a new strategic plan “to be the Dan River Region’s leader for integrated awareness of history, culture and community.”
The city became the owner of the Sutherlin Mansion in 1914, with the help of the Anne Eliza Johns Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The building had deteriorated and would have been demolished, but the local UDC chapter went to city officials and offered to pay half the cost — $20,000, a huge sum in those days — of purchasing and restoring the Sutherlin Mansion.
In 1983, the museum leased the Sutherlin Mansion, and in 1994 the Heritage Preservation Association asked to install a historical monument on the lawn “to consist of a seven-foot granite obelisk and a flagpole flying the third national flag of the Confederacy.” That came after a previous controversy over city maintenance of the Sutherlin Mansion and the Confederate flag.
“We’ve had a good working relationship with the museum, but that relationship has been damaged,” said Vernell Gwynn, president of the Anne Eliza Johns Chapter of the UDC.
When Burton asked her for a copy of the 1994 agreement about a year ago, Gwynn said she didn’t see anything in it; but nothing more was said to her about their plans.
“[Burton] didn’t discuss it with us — it was already news when I got back from a UDC convention,” Gwynn said, adding that she felt the museum’s actions were a slap at the “hundreds of women” who had been members of the UDC over time, saving the Sutherlin Mansion and continuing to be volunteers at the museum to this day.
“There are lots of things Danville can do to help with tourism and taking the flag down isn’t one of them,” Gwynn said. “I’m happy to see that it will stay there; next, I want to see the [Confederate Memorial] sign returned.”
For her part, Burton said Wednesday she found City Council’s decision “interesting” and that she had forwarded it to the board of directors. Burton said the board had been interviewing residents and taking surveys for about a year before they adopted their new strategic plan.
“I’ve been proud of my board; they listened to a lot of people and made a bold decision, and acted on it,” Burton said.
Burton said the museum acts as a community center, holding weddings on the grounds, having community events and holding a variety of classes.
Feedback from many residents and visitors let Burton and the board numbers know that the flag was controversial and the request to remove it was just a “little tiny part” of their new strategic plan.
The desire to have an inside display of the flag, explaining its history, came from that feedback, Burton said.
“If it was inside, it would tell more of its story; outside, it’s a distraction,” Burton said.
Members of Danville City Council were in a closed-door meeting discussing this issue until about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Council members reached for comment Wednesday all said it was a long and often loud discussion during the work session about the museum’s request.
Councilman Larry Campbell said while he would like to see the flag removed, he understands that council cannot go against state law — which basically says once a monument is erected to any war’s veterans it cannot be removed or altered.
Campbell said he sees the issue as “serious and controversial,” and could lead to a lawsuit no matter what council decided to do, and he doesn’t want to see taxpayer dollars spent on a lawsuit.
“My objective is to try and keep peace and unity in the community,” Campbell said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, after reading state code, that it’s a non-issue,” Councilman Buddy Rawley said. “We can’t take it down.”
Vice Mayor Gary Miller and Councilman Fred Shanks both also said, whatever their personal opinions are about the Confederate flag, council cannot override state laws.
“Personally, I kept hoping when the museum director saw how divisive this was, they’d withdraw the request,” Shanks said. “I have supported the museum in the past … I’m disappointed in them.”
Thibodeau reports for the Danville Register & Bee.