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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM BOWLING GREEN, VA.

A Simple Plan to Boost Tourism, Honor Black History Goes Awry

July 14, 2002|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN, Va. — On the courthouse lawn, a 15-foot statue of a Confederate soldier faces south toward Richmond, head bowed, rifle in hand. It is a symbol meant to memorialize the town's occupation by the Union Army in 1864. To many blacks, however, it is a reminder of the part of local history that has gone unrecorded and unhonored.

So two years ago, Bowling Green's multiracial tourist commission came up with the idea of erecting a black history monument next to the soldier at the front of the lawn on Main Street. The announced goal was to promote tourism in Caroline County by coaxing travelers into town from nearby Interstate 95. If the new statue also helped overcome the historical imbalance, so much the better, some thought.

But officials quickly found that coming to grips with symbols in the South remains a sensitive business, and raises issues that many people would rather leave unspoken.

The monument would depict two events: an unsuccessful slave rebellion in 1800 led by blacksmith Gabriel Prosser, and the 1958 marriage and arrest of Richard Loving, a white, and Mildred Jetter, a woman of mixed race, which led to a historic U.S. Supreme Court decision. The design prompted impassioned meetings of the county's board of supervisors and a visit by a Justice Department conciliation specialist.

The board ultimately voted down the design and is once again searching for a way to commemorate African American history in a way acceptable to most residents.

"At first the board had only three questions: about placement, funding and whether the African American community embraced the idea of a monument," said Linda Thomas, president of the local National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "Then pretty soon I started hearing, 'Oh, oh, this is never going to fly with [its depiction of] Gabriel and the Lovings.' "

Before the board of supervisors rejected it last year on a 3-2 vote, 400 black residents signed a petition supporting the monument and 17 spoke in its favor at one of five board meetings that dragged on past midnight. The only person to speak against it was Garnet Brooks, the former sheriff who arrested the Lovings for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law.

The board's majority said the monument would be divisive and that depicting the planned rebellion would celebrate violence. Blacks argued that the event marked the start of their own movement for independence, even though Prosser, who was later hanged, was from Henrico County and had probably never been to Caroline County.

"Frankly, with all the problems we face in this country today, I'm not sure that a monument is the No. 1 issue on people's minds," board chairman Calvin Taylor, a black who voted with the majority, said in a recent interview. "Besides, my understanding was that the monument was to honor African American achievement, and the Lovings' marriage wasn't just an African American achievement. It was the achievement of all mankind."

Although the final design of the monument remains in question, many residents in this county, whose population of 22,000 is one-third black, see some good coming out of the debate.

"The fact that we're not afraid to talk to each other or argue this out in public, the fact that it has inspired and emboldened folk who have never realized they are part of government to step forward and speak out, that's healthy," the NAACP's Thomas said.

For their part, the three white and two black supervisors have tried to keep things calm. They erected a highway marker on the Little Fish Bridge to the Caroline County slaves who planned to join the Prosser rebellion, and they mounted a plaque in the courthouse to the Lovings, whose challenge to their one-year jail sentences resulted in the Supreme Court in 1967 forcing 16 states to throw out their anti-miscegenation laws.

The board also asked a five-member committee of blacks born in Caroline County to submit ideas for a less controversial monument. It would be a multicultural obelisk at the rear of the lawn, with two panels devoted to the history of European settlers and two to that of minorities.

The board wanted to include the Rappahannock Indians on one panel, but Geraldine Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the tribe, nixed the idea, telling supervisors that hundreds of years of neglect and prejudice could not be adequately addressed in a memorial.

Most residents say the new monument would be too politically correct and bland to lure many travelers from I-95, so the county has started looking for new ways to get a slice of the nearly $13 billion travelers spent in Virginia last year.

Its target is Caroline County's most famous native son, the late Secretariat, winner of horse racing's Triple Crown in 1973.

So far, the legendary thoroughbred is commemorated only with a local highway marker. But Caroline County's director of economic development and tourism, Gary Wilson, says plans are afoot to turn Secretariat's home at Meadow Farm into a major tourist attraction--and perhaps to honor the great horse with a noncontroversial monument.

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