The bronze plaque on the Loudoun County World War I Memorial has stood in the heart of Leesburg for nearly 100 years. Located on the county courthouse grounds, the plaque lists the names of the 30 service members from Loudoun who died during war. Segregated by two engraved lines, on top are the names of 27 white service members; below are three Black men who equally gave their lives for America.
The dividing line may soon be gone.
Loudoun County Supervisor Mike Turner (D-Ashburn) said he plans to propose a new plaque that would alphabetize the names. Turner is aiming to offer a motion to the board in September after the supervisors’ August break. If approved, the Ashburn supervisor hopes a re-dedication ceremony can be held in 2022, the 100th anniversary of the memorial’s installation.
“I knew I wanted it changed, it couldn’t stay the way it was,” Turner, a retired Air Force colonel, said. “I never wanted the memorial removed — that was never my intent. It was always to replace the engraving in a way that reflects the sacrifice of the men who are listed on the plaque and also in a way that reflects justice in America.”
Loudoun County and other localities across Virginia were given the authority by state lawmakers to “remove, relocate or contextualize” war memorials in this year’s General Assembly session. The law went into effect in July.
The controversial Confederate monument in Leesburg, which stood on the courthouse grounds since 1908, was removed last month. The statue was claimed by its owner, the Loudoun Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, after the Board of Supervisors signaled its intent to remove the monument.
The separating line on the World War I monument hits home for Marilyn Thornton, a Washington, D.C.-based author and the granddaughter of war veteran James Edgar Thornton, about whom she wrote a book. Marilyn Thornton is a relative of one of the Black Loudoun County deceased, Samuel C. Thornton. She supports replacing the plaque.
“Can’t you just see people sitting around in a meeting saying, ‘Oh, let’s put the white boys at the top?’” she said in an interview with the Times-Mirror. “It’s just incredible to me that anybody would think to do that.”
Thornton said she saw the plaque for the first time when researching her 2016 book, “Letters From Edgar’s Trunk,” based on accounts from her grandfather in the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. The group was commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The author dedicated the book to the Black soldiers listed on the plaque — Ernest Gilbert, Valentine B. Johnson and Samuel C. Thornton.
Thornton said she could not believe the plaque when she first saw it. She called it “ridiculous,” but said she was not surprised. She recalled meeting Supervisor Turner at an event, and she shared her issues with the monument.
Due to the casualties sustained by the French Army in the first World War, many Black U.S. soldiers were sent to France, according to Thornton’s research. She reasoned Black soldiers were sent to help the French Army in part because the American Army didn’t want them, and Black service members often sought the opportunity to prove their worth for equal treatment in the U.S., according to historians. But racial tension increased when Black soldiers returned home, with anti-Black riots and attacks on Black veterans. The military was eventually desegregated in 1948.
The local “Great War” memorial was built in 1922 and dedicated on July 8, 1922, to honor the 30 fallen soldiers, Marines and sailors. Thirteen of them died of influenza or complications of the disease.
The bronze plaque reads “Our Glorious Dead” along with a scripture from the King James Version of the Bible Ecclesiasticus 44:14: “Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore.”
The memorial is surrounded by others dedicated to the Revolutionary War, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not everyone is in favor of altering the World War I monument, however. Richard Gillespie, a respected local historian and educator, urges against alphabetizing the name.
“It is hard to find things that so blatantly show segregation and the impact of Jim Crow,” Gillespie said. “It’s a way for us to point out to people what happened, and I hope that we don’t have to point out to people that we no longer believe in that. But I hope we don’t change it, because it needs to still be there to remind us.”
He added, “The honor of these African Americans having served — and in a time of intense prejudice and discrimination against them — is clearly denoted in this 99-year-old memorial. Changing this sign most clearly would be changing — erasing — history.”
In January, the Board of Supervisors adopted the county Heritage Commission’s recommendations on making the courthouse grounds a better reflection of the county’s history. The recommendations include reserving space for a future interpretive “Path Toward Freedom,” possibly designing and installing additional memorials and facilitating community discussions about the future of the courthouse grounds.
Michelle Thomas, president of the NAACP Loudoun Branch, opposes keeping the World War I plaque as is. She stands against any “vestiges of hate and discrimination.”
“If the memorial’s purpose is to honor those who gave their lives, why would we include something that was dishonorable?” Thomas said. “That dividing line was dishonorable.”
Supervisor Turner has garnered support for his initiative from the veterans community, including the Loudoun County VFW Post 1177, the American Legion Post 34 and Loudoun County Foreign War Memorial Trust Fund Advisory Committee.
Funds for a replacement plaque could come from veterans groups and be collected by the county into the War Memorial Trust Fund launched in 1986, according to county staff. As of July 31, the balance was more than $23,000.
Phil Rusciolelli, a member of the Loudoun County Foreign War Memorial Trust Fund Advisory Committee, supports altering the plaque. He noted one of the committee’s latest projects was installing lights on the war memorials, a way to enhance remembrance of the fallen service members.
“If you go past the memorials at night, the granite memorials light up. They reflect what our country is about — dedication of service people that have gone on and given everything for our freedoms that we have today,” Rusciolelli said. “And I think that in and of itself says why we need to fix that plaque, because it symbolizes freedom, so we need to ensure that it reflects freedom.”
Turner said the American Legion and VFW posts were unanimous in their support, reflecting their commitment to the meaning of America, “true patriotism” and serving the country in a fair and equitable way.
“We did this together as a group and as rational adults who saw an inequity and wanted it fixed,” Turner said. “This is a Republican, Democratic, Independent issue that we all agree needs to change, and so we were pleased with that outcome and the way we handled it.”