PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY/AP) — A Portsmouth city councilman wants the city’s Confederate monument removed from downtown, calling it a symbol of racism that shouldn’t be displayed in a public space.
The city’s Confederate monument is in a highly-visible part of the city that’s frequented by tourists and locals alike, many of whom serve in the Navy and Coast Guard. The granite obelisk stands 35-feet high and has four smaller statues surrounding it, representing those who served in the Confederate artillery, infantry, navy and cavalry.
Councilman Mark Whitaker urged city council Tuesday night to consider removing the monument, as momentum builds across the South to take downs symbols of the Confederacy. This comes after a shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where police say a white man killed nine black church members in a racially motivated attack.
“Those symbols feed into the mentalities of people who tend to escalate and do harm to persons in our society, simply based on who they are and the color of their skin,” Whitaker told WAVY.com.
“I think that it is appropriate and past time that the city of Portsmouth looks within itself and sees that we also have some very racist symbols in our city, one in particular being the Confederate memorial,” he said.
In Portsmouth, about 53 percent of the population is black, according to census figures. Several residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting spoke in favor of removing the monument, following Whitaker’s comments.
The black-majority council asked its interim city manager to look into potential costs of removing the monument before it decides to take any action. The council’s next meeting is scheduled for July 14.
Mayor Kenny Wright has joined Whitaker in calling for the memorial’s removal.
“If we’re truly going to move our city forward and do the things that we need to do, talking about equality and all those types of things, this type of symbol has got to go,” Wright said Wednesday.
Construction on the memorial began in 1876 on a square that “represented the city’s religious, civic, financial and social life,” according to the official nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places. The monument was completed in 1893.
The nomination form says the Portsmouth monument is of important historic and military significance because it is one of three in the South that features a Confederate sailor. The sailor faces in the direction of the Elizabeth River, which the CSS Virginia, also known as the USS Merrimack, sailed through on its way to the first battle of ironclad ships in the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Former city librarian and Portsmouth history author Dean Burgess said he supports removing Confederate flags, but thinks the monument should stay. He called it art.
“The symbolism isn’t what I’m particularly interested in. I’m interested in that it’s a piece of history,” Burgess said.
Portsmouth resident Mary Franke said she thinks the monument should go. “I think it’s served it’s purpose. I think, if it continues to stay here, it needs to be here with plaques memorializing the other situations, the situation of blacks under slavery,” Franke said.
John Sharrett, III leads a Sons of Confederate Veterans group for Portsmouth. He said his great-great uncle on his mother’s side fought in the war.
“It represents the Confederate soldiers, black and white, that fought during the war, and it honors all of those,” Sharrett said.
“Those men that are being honored, had their desires gone forward, then a process of killing, terrorism, intimidation and subhuman treatment through a system of slavery would have continued, and I think for that symbol to be in a public place is highly inappropriate,” Whitaker said Wednesday. “If it is to be celebrated, it should be celebrated among individuals and on private property.”
Sharrett said Portsmouth City Council donated the land to build the monument in the 1870s and in the 1920s it was deeded to the organization’s Stonewall Camp, so even if council members want to remove it, they can’t, Sharrett said.
Signs of the Confederacy are all over his home. Asked about Councilman Whitaker’s claim that the monument is a symbol of white hatred, Sharrett replied, “That’s not true. It’s honoring the soldiers from the south and from Portsmouth and Norfolk County that fought to save Virginia.”
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