Kathy Liston: Black History is not a ‘Woke Idea’

Published 12:00 pm Friday, December 8, 2023

Kathy Liston
Guest columnist

At the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting on Nov. 13, the supervisors delivered a public slap in the face to all of the Black and many of the White citizens of the county. 

They effectively said that the history of Black enslavement in the county is not important enough for the County to pay to tell it.

On a motion by chairman Gary Walker, the BOS voted unanimously to renege on an agreement to pay to replace two damaged Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) markers on Route 40 – one for Greenfield and one for Edgehill. Both were former plantations whose owners enslaved African Americans for generations. The replacement markers would acknowledge that along with their other history. The updated text for the Greenfield marker would include this line: “Greenfield was built and sustained with the labor of enslaved African Americans.” The Edgehill text would be similar.

This acknowledgement of enslaved people’s contributions was apparently just too much for Mr. Walker and the Board. In Walker’s words, included in a rant he delivered after passing the gavel to Vice-Chairman Will Garnett, he didn’t want the DHR pushing their “woke ideas” (a direct quote) on the county.

Over the past few years, DHR has been inventorying its historic highway markers across the Commonwealth. Many of these were erected in the 1920s and 1930s, and are badly damaged and deteriorated. Unlike new markers which are paid for with donations, replacement markers are usually paid for by VDOT or the localities. The VDOT waiting list is long, and they are already in the process of paying for several replacement markers in Charlotte County. 

If left for VDOT to fund them, it might be several years before the highly-visible markers for Greenfield and Edgehill were replaced. To speed up the replacements, DHR suggested that Charlotte County might pay for those two markers. The BOS agreed at their Dec. 10, 2022 meeting. 

In October 2021, a DHR historic marker for Joseph R. Holmes, a former slave who was the first Black elected to serve Charlotte County, was unveiled on the courthouse green. Holmes was murdered on the courthouse steps in 1869. The marker was paid for by private donations. Mr. Walker was the only supervisor to vote against placing the marker at the courthouse.

In September 2023, the County paid for and unveiled a panel sign placing the Confederate monument into historical context – the first such sign in the Commonwealth. The sign presents both viewpoints: the monument as a memorial to the dead and the monument as a symbol of power and oppression. Mr. Walker supported that sign.

The supervisors were lauded publicly by DHR, the press, and others for these broad-minded projects that exposed past injustices towards the Black community. 

Now these same individuals, led by an irate and misinformed Chairman Walker, have taken a giant step backwards. 

It is worth noting that this vote to renege on the funding will not stop the replacement markers from being erected, complete with acknowledgement of enslaved people. The BOS has no control over that. It will just take a while longer for VDOT to pay for them.

These DHR historic markers have nothing to do with “woke ideas,” they have to do with factual history. It is only right that we tell the stories of ALL our citizens, no matter how uncomfortable that may make some. To do anything less is an insult to us all.

Kathy Liston is an archaeologist and historian living in Charlotte County. She can be reached at kle1993@gmail.com.