Loudoun County Board Chair Phyllis Randall stands in front of the "Silent Sentinel" Confederate Monument in Leesburg, Va.
For nearly two decades, Phyllis Randall pushed to remove the Confederate monument that stands outside the Loudoun County Courthouse. On the night of May 31, though, she found herself defending the statue. Randall, who chairs the Loudoun County Board, and Vice Chair Koran Saines (D-Sterling), who are both African American, stood at its pedestal to keep protesters away.
"There were people who were trying to do things to the monument and climb up on it and put stickers on it." Randall recalled. "Mr. Saines and I literally stood on either side of the monument and said, 'No, we're not going to let that happen. Do not damage the monument.'"
Randall, a Democrat, shielded the monument not for love, but so she could savor its orderly demise. And at a board meeting on Tuesday, she got that moment.
"I take this vote in the name of thousands," Randall said through tears. "Thousands of Loudoun citizens, Black citizens, who never had a voice and sometimes didn't have a vote."
The nine members voted unanimously to return the statue to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It was a stunning about-face. A year ago, Virginia law prevented local governments from moving the monuments. Loudoun County's Republican-controlled board insisted on keeping the statue standing, and the Daughters of the Confederacy firmly supported keeping the figure in place.
Now each of those barriers has fallen away.
Phil Thompson, who tried in vain to remove the monument during his tenure as Loudoun NAACP president from 2014-2019, attended the same rally in May. He worried protesters could hurt themselves or that police could intervene and trigger a clash. It was a relief to see Randall step in, and evidence of rapid change, he said.
"There are times when we led the charge. Now everybody's running past us," Thompson said.
Courtesy of/Ron Campbell
Protesters stand beside the Confederate statue in Leesburg in a demonstration for justice for George Floyd in May 2020.
Courtesy of/Ron Campbell
A Silent Sentinel
The bronze "Silent Sentinel" depicts a young Confederate soldier cocking his musket. It was unveiled in 1908, paid for by the group that would become the United Daughters of the Confederacy, with a $500 assist from the county government. At its base is a plaque that reads, "In memory of the Confederate soldiers of Loudoun County."
When it went up, it was not remarkable; some 100 Confederate monuments stand in Virginia. But to Randall, who moved from Colorado to Virginia in the early 1990s, it was a shock.
Courtesy of/Phyllis Randall
In this 2004 letter, Phyllis Randall wrote in a local paper that "To include Confederate symbols on our public streets and public signs does much more than just recognize the historic ties Leesburg and Loudoun County have to the Confederacy, it actually celebrates what the Confederacy was."
Courtesy of/Phyllis Randall
"I looked at it like, three times, and I really couldn't believe that I was looking at a Confederate monument in front of a courthouse," she said. "It's total betrayal of me as an American that this is something they would put up on public, county-owned property in front of the place where you should receive justice."
In 2004, Randall wrote Loudoun Connection her first of several letters against Confederate symbols in the county, titling the missive, "Teach Not Celebrate." Other signs of displeasure cropped up from time to time, like in 2006, when vandals broke the barrel of the rifle. Still, the statue was part of the county's fabric. In 2008, the Loudoun County board contributed more than $3,000 to a celebration of its centennial.
'We Just Did Not Feel Compelled To Move It'
Distant tragedies fueled recent local calls to move the monument. After a white gunman massacred nine African American worshippers in a South Carolina church in 2015, Thompson of the NAACP said he tried to take the Leesburg statue down.
"We did a rally in 2015 asking for the statue to be removed and replaced," Thompson told WAMU/DCist. "But we were told numerous times that Virginia law was fairly specific as far as war memorials."
The Loudoun County Board, dominated by Republicans, was also against moving the monument. Former Chair Scott York said requests to remove the statue came up "a couple times" during his 16 years at the helm, but he deflected them.
"The monuments have represented members of this community throughout the ages who went off and fought in battle," York told WAMU/DCist. "We just did not feel compelled to move it."
Instead, in 2015 Loudoun County voted to contribute $50,000 toward building a memorial to Union soldiers and enslaved people who were sold on the county courthouse steps. The Sentinel would remain standing.
Loudoun County is among the wealthiest counties in America and one of the fastest growing, adding about 100,000 people in the decade ending in 2019. The county's foreign-born population doubled in that period, and the new residents added to a growing Democratic voting bloc.
In the 2015 elections, Randall ousted York and became the first African American woman to chair a Virginia county board. She now had a bigger platform to assail the monument, but she faced a Republican majority on the nine-member board, and the same state law that prohibited moving war memorials.
In August 2017, following the deadly "Unite the Right" rally that ignited over an effort to remove a statue to Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Randall mounted a new effort. She motioned to ask the General Assembly to give Loudoun County the authority to move its monument. The motion failed, and instead, the board tasked the county's Heritage Commission with reviewing the courthouse's history and recommending new memorials "to fully reflect the history of the grounds and Loudoun County."
"I opposed that," Randall said. "I believe the contextual nature of that belongs in history books, not in a statue that memorializes and commemorates."
Donna Bohanon co-chaired the commission, which issued an 84-page history of race relations in the county. It included details on 250 African Americans from Loudoun County who fought for the Union in the Civil War and three Black victims of lynching in the county. Bohanon, who is African American, said the monument offended her, too, but she didn't consider removing it as part of her brief. Instead, she said surfacing the county's history might have spread empathy.
"Working on pulling together the narrative has stoked people's curiosity," she said.
In 2019, Democrats swept Virginia, flipping the Loudoun board as well as both houses of the General Assembly. In February this year, state lawmakers voted to give local authorities the power to move their war memorials.
By June, the Loudoun chapter of the United Daughter of the Confederacy staked out a defensive position, writing on Facebook, "Removing a monument is not the solution. It doesn't fix anything. It only creates more division and pain."
A Dam Breaks
The new law enabling towns to take down their monuments took effect this month; Chair Randall scheduled a hearing July 7 to begin the process. She said she danced for joy in her kitchen when she received a letter that would speed it up: the United Daughters of the Confederacy asked for their statue back.
"A clear majority [of the county board] has expressed their support for its removal," attorney Stephen Price wrote on behalf of the group. "Consequently, the Loudoun Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy have directed me to request the statue's return."
The group did not respond to a request for comment.
The UDC removed another Confederate statue in Alexandria last month as part of a wave across the state; four of Richmond's five Confederate statues on Monument Avenue have been removed in the last weeks as well, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) says he will overcome a judge order to take down a memorial to Robert E. Lee.
On Tuesday Randall heard public comments on the monument. One speaker recalled Revolutionary War soldiers melting down a statue of King George III into musket balls and suggested a similar destruction for Leesburg's statue. Others supported moving the memorial to a museum or a civil war battlefield. Only a few defended the statue, including Geary Higgins, a Republican former member of the board.
"What I fear is that this is really not about war memorials. This is about all memorials," he said, as he reached the end of his allotted speaking minutes. Randall cut him off.
"Mr. Higgins," she interjected. "Mr. Higgins, your time is up."
Leesburg town councilman Ron Campbell said he is pleased the Confederate statue will come down; still, he says, there is much work to do to reconcile the racist history of his town.
The board took a vote on returning the monument to the Daughters of the Confederacy. All nine members voted in favor, including three Republicans.
The legacy of the Confederacy and segregation in Leesburg will not go down with the monument. Ron Campbell (D), a member of the Leesburg Town Council, said he was dismayed this year to see hundreds of Confederate flags up at a Leesburg cemetery on Memorial Day. Even the town's WWI Memorial is segregationist, he said; the names of three Black war casualties are separated from their white comrades-in-arms.
"There has been no reconciliation in the Commonwealth of Virginia, much less Leesburg," he said.
Loudoun County and the UDC agreed they will remove the statue by September 7. In the meantime, Randall said she is weighing how to impose more oversight over the county's elected sheriff. She said the board also created an equity officer position to examine its work.
"Three years ago some of the things I wanted to discuss or I tried to discuss, I just couldn't get them off the ground," she said. "We're in a very different time."