WISE — A Wise County resident and two last-minute requests for courthouse lawn memorials have put a two-year proposed lynching memorial project on hold with the county Board of Supervisors.
The board voted 7-0, with Supervisor James Lawson absent, to table a vote on the Community Remembrance Project’s request to put on the county courthouse lawn a marker memorializing the lynching of three black men in the county in the early 20th century.
The supervisors had listened to Remembrance Project members at the board’s March 11 meeting, with Supervisor Bob Adkins thanking the group then “for opening our eyes and the eyes of the community.”
“Many things have passed over the years unknown and unrealized by the citizens,” Adkins said at the March meeting. He joined the other six supervisors present in Thursday’s vote.
County resident Stephanie Kern, during the meeting’s public comment session before the vote, criticized the project’s proposed marker, which was funded in full by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative.
Kern quoted several Bible passages during her talk, saying that the “justice denied” aspect of the project’s efforts was not “beneficial.”
“Why not blanket the county with plaques memorializing heroes,” Kern said, adding that the project marker was similar to “wokeness, critical race theory, the (New York Times’) 1619 Project, white guilt, white fragility.”
“Such a memorial would fuel animosity and unforgiveness,” Kern said, adding a request for the supervisors to table the scheduled vote on placing the marker.
In the past two years, the Community Remembrance Project had gathered resolutions of support from governing bodies in all six county towns and the city of Norton, the Wise County and Norton school boards and the Historical Society of the Pound. One of the lynchings, in 1927, happened near Pound on the Virginia-Kentucky state line.
When the agenda reached the marker, Supervisor Chairman J.H. Rivers said two other marker requests had been submitted, although details were not listed in the board’s meeting packet. County Administrator Mike Hatfield said the requests included a marker for fallen coal miners and a marker commemorating the 1950 Norton Little League team for playing as a racially integrated team after Charlottesville’s Little League team refused to play them.
Supervisor Robby Robbins moved to table the vote because of “other things going on.”
“By tabling this, don’t think that the board wants to discredit it,” Supervisor Fred Luntsford Jr. said to Remembrance Project coordinator Preston Mitchell.
Luntsford said monuments could be erected in other parts of the county or plaques placed inside the courthouse to avoid theft, defacing or the need for maintenance.
Supervisors Vice Chairman Steve Bates asked to speak with Mitchell before the board went into closed session. Rivers directed Hatfield to get more details on the two new marker requests.
Before going into closed session, Rivers said the coal miners memorial request was submitted on Monday and the Little League memorial request on Tuesday. Asked if the marker and memorials would be open to the public only during courthouse business hours, Rivers said yes.
Bates recommended Mitchell bring supporters to the supervisors’ May meeting for public comment.
“History’s not a buffet,” Mitchell said in response to the public comment and vote. “You don’t get to pick and choose what you get to tell.”
Mitchell pointed to project committee member and UVA Wise Student Services Coordinator Marcia Mitchell’s comments at the March meeting about students of color at the college and how the county handles the lynching issue.
“Twenty-three percent of students are of color, and the county’s recognition of this history would show great sensitivity toward them and their parents by telling this story,” Mitchell said, adding that he expected project supporters to attend the supervisors’ May meeting.