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EDITORIAL: A promise deferred on the courthouse grounds

William Jordan Augustus was enslaved at Oatlands Plantation until he left in 1809 to seek his freedom in the north.

Leonard Grimes was an important black abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor. He was born in Leesburg around 1815 and was tried and convicted there in 1839 for helping a woman and her six children escape from slavery in Loudoun.

Nelson Talbott Gant was freed and forced to leave Virginia without his wife, whose Leesburg owner refused to sell her. He returned and was denied again, but the couple left anyway. They were captured, returned, and Nelson Gant was tried in 1847. His lawyers successfully argued that matrimony was higher law than slavery.

John W. Jones escaped from slavery near Leesburg and became a noted stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in Elmira, N.Y, as large numbers of blacks fleeing slavery migrated to Canada before and during the Civil War.

Leesburg blacksmith Peyton Lucas swam across the Potomac to escape from slavery. He settled in Pennsylvania until he saw an ad for his capture. He then left for New York. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, he fled to safety in Canada.

You won’t find a statue of Augustus, Grimes, Gant, Jones or Peyton in Loudoun County. But it’s hard to miss the statue of a Confederate soldier on the lawn of the Loudoun County Courthouse in historic downtown Leesburg.

No matter how citizens consider symbolism and versions of history, a wound that should have healed long ago has been opened anew by a deferred promise.

Should a statue honoring Loudouners who died defending slavery, a monument that reconsiders the Civil War as “The Lost Cause,” still stand in 2017 on the public grounds of our contemporary justice system?

Many Confederate monuments from this era -- there are more than 700 in the U.S. -- have attracted national attention since a white gunman with a passion for the Confederate battle flag killed nine black members of a bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina. Since the Charleston killings an argument has raged over whether Confederate statues represent Southern heritage or are symbols of slavery and oppression of blacks.

Loudoun County supervisors and candidates dodged the divisive debate over the courthouse statue by pledging during the 2015 local election cycle to honor a fuller version of local history by recognizing Loudoun’s enslaved community and the county’s role in the Underground Railroad.

But the pledge is a promise deferred. County officials point in opposite directions when asked about their roles in bringing a more complete story about Loudoun to the public consciousness.

The county chapter of the NAACP and local historians propose constructing a memorial honoring slaves who were once sold on the courthouse grounds and Union soldiers who fought in the nation’s bloodiest war. One of the historians is Kevin Grigsby, who contends more diverse perspectives should be displayed to the people and visitors of Loudoun.

"As one who has the blood of enslaved ancestors running through the veins, as well as that of a slave master, my perspective on the Civil War is pretty clear … Loudoun was a Confederate territory, but Loudoun also had strong pockets of Union loyalists," Grigsby teaches. "Loudoun County, indeed, has one of the richest and most unique Civil War histories in the entire nation."

The county is home to four locations officially recognized by the National Park Service as Network to Freedom sites: the Loudoun County Courthouse, Melrose Farm in Waterford, Oatlands and the Thomas Balch Library. Unfortunately, a statue honoring a Confederate soldier stands as the county’s definitive statement about slavery and history.

History has names: Augustus, Grimes, Gant, Jones, Lucas. All Loudouners should know their stories. More than 200 years have passed since their struggle for freedom helped define the society that we live in today.

The time for county government to reflect Loudoun’s full history dealing with the Civil War, racism and slavery is long overdue. Our elected officials address sweeping change and competing perspectives about growth with the immediacy of the moment. If we are to truly grow from our history, then now is moment for keeping a promise.


Historical references: Underground Railroad Sites in Loudoun County, The Underground Railroad in Loudoun County (Scheel) and Thomas Balch Library.

Comments


Do whatever you want because pretty soon ISIS will be blowing up all the moments if you don’t stop fighting ourselves and recognize the real enemy at the gates.


I guess the apologist commenting on the other article have not seen this or they would be over spouting their “racist in sheep clothing” arguments about continuing to allow the symbol of slavery, oppression and treason to grace our Courthouse grounds. Well said and a good guide to follow as the effort to honor those on the right side of history continues.


As a Loudoun resident, I am opposed to spending any government funding on ANY statutes or monuments.  In my opinion funding should be sought from local business or residents that wish to donate.  Once the funds are secured, feel free to erect or tear down any monuments, so long as it does not interfere with someone else’s rights.


Thank you. Very well said.

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