CHARLOTTESVILLE — Albemarle County is starting a community engagement process to help better tell the history of the county’s property in Court Square.
The county’s Circuit Court and General District Court buildings currently sit on Albemarle land that was never annexed by the city of Charlottesville. The land also is home to multiple historic markers and a monument to city and county Confederate soldiers.
A state law that authorizes localities to build and permit monuments to veterans of any war or major conflict also said it “shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.”
With the potential for legislation to pass in the General Assembly this year that could grant localities control over war memorials and monuments on their property — and the Board of Supervisors specifically asking for that authority — Albemarle staff thought this was a good time for the board to establish a more specific vision for the use of the land.
“We’re trying to give the board an opportunity to consider what are we asking the space to do when people come here,” said Siri Russell, director of the county’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. “Is it meant to be reflective? What is the work of story or the storytelling that is happening in this space?”
The Board of Supervisors approved the framework for the community engagement process at its meeting last week.
Over about a six-month time frame, county staff will complete a process that will include community conversations around memorials, monuments and uses of public space, educational tours of the Albemarle County Courthouse Historic District and public listening sessions.
Ultimately, the Office of Equity and Inclusion’s equity work group, along with county staffers and members of Albemarle’s Historic Preservation Committee, will draft options for the future of the property for the supervisors to consider in June.
County spokeswoman Emily Kilroy and Russell said the process the county is planning to have is different from Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, which was a city panel of community members who were tasked with providing the City Council “with options for telling the full story of Charlottesville’s history of race relations and for changing the city’s narrative through our public spaces,” according to a resolution passed in 2016.
The commission was tasked, in part, to specifically “make a recommendation as to the course of action council should take” regarding the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson — whether to keep them as is, remove them and/or add context to the sites.
Ultimately, a majority of commission members voted to recommend keeping the statues in the city.
“We really wanted something that was more community driven and that gave opportunities for people to participate as much or as little as they wanted, but to be able to see themselves in the process,” Kilroy said.
She said they also want the process to be inclusive of not only community members, but of the history of Albemarle.
“We feel like it’s really critical that that’s a true community conversation and not the conversation of some that others are invited to watch,” Kilroy said.
When asked if the goal of the process is to specifically move the county’s Confederate soldier statue, Kilroy and Russell said the goal is to present the board with options.
“It really is about developing that shared understanding and having conversations about what do we want the space to say about us?,” Kilory said. “What do we want it to do for us moving forward? How is it reflective of who our community is, and where we want to be? … So what are the options, who knows?”
She said the answers to those questions are what they want to come out of the community engagement process.
While Charlottesville grappled with its Confederate statues, Albemarle received little to no public attention around its statue in 2016 or 2017.
In 2018, a petition was started by Albemarle resident Matthew Christensen to remove the monument to Confederate soldiers from the courthouse property as soon as possible.
The next month, the Board of Supervisors considered adding a request for local authority for decisions around statues and monuments to its legislative priorities, which the supervisors ultimately requested ahead of the 2019 and 2020 General Assembly sessions.
This year, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, has filed SB 620, which would change the state code for memorials to war veterans and allow a locality or its officers or officials to “alter, move, or remove any monument or memorial from the locality’s public property.”
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, has said she has filed a similar bill, but it has not yet been assigned a number.
A bill filed in 2019 by Hudson’s predecessor Del. David J. Toscano, that would have given localities authority to remove Confederate or Union monuments was killed. A 2018 Toscano bill that was broader also was killed.
This session is the first time in 26 years that Democrats have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion.
Kilroy said the county will publish more information about the engagement process before the end of the month.