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Virginia Faces Complicated Debate Over Two Confederate Monuments


There's a debate going on in Virginia over the legacies of two former Confederate generals. These men fought to preserve slavery. But then after the Civil War, they helped some Black Americans. So should they be honored? Here's Sam Turken of member station WHRV.

SAM TURKEN, BYLINE: Phyllis Terrell enrolled at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg in 1976. She had no clue who William Taliaferro was even after she found out her dorm was named after him.

PHYLLIS TERRELL: There's so much going on in your freshman life that the significance of the building that you may be sleeping in every night when you're not in the library, you didn't focus on it.

TURKEN: These days, students go in and out of Taliaferro Hall like any other building. It's a red brick, three-story dorm in the Georgian style, matching the rest of campus. Terrell, who's Black, says she wasn't surprised when she heard Taliaferro was a Confederate general, a slave owner. After all, William & Mary is the second oldest college in the country. And it's in Virginia, which was the capital of the Confederacy.

TERRELL: A lot of history here. A lot of families are rooted here.

TURKEN: Like many other universities, William & Mary is revisiting its racist past, including whether to rename buildings like Taliaferro Hall. After the Civil War, Taliaferro sat on the school's board. He also mentored Thomas Calhoun Walker, a former slave. Taliaferro hired him as a clerk in his all-white law office and helped him become one of Virginia's first African American lawyers, who would later work for two U.S. presidents. Walker talked about Taliaferro in his autobiography, saying he often studied in the former Confederate's private library. They would discuss Walker's personal life. And he said it was just as if I were white or he were not a Confederate general. Virginia historian Robert Kelly believes Taliaferro realized that the country was changing.

ROBERT KELLY: This would mean new and different opportunities for African Americans.

TURKEN: Considering that, I asked Phyllis Terrell whether William & Mary should rename Taliaferro Hall.

TERRELL: It's complicated. There are very few saints on the planet that I'm aware of. Right now, the slavery issue would be enough for me to take the name off the building.

TURKEN: The nuance is even more clear when Renea Gott talks about Taliaferro. She's also Black and grew up in Virginia.

RENEA GOTT: Anybody can change their mind about how they think about someone or something. And I believe that name should still be on the building.

TURKEN: Taliaferro isn't the only Confederate general people are grappling with in Virginia. William Mahone also has a history full of contradictions. He helped execute hundreds of Black union soldiers who weren't allowed to surrender during the war. Later, Mahone got into politics, became a U.S. senator. He didn't advocate for equal rights. But anti-slavery Republicans and Black people were a major part of his voting base. In return, Mahone and his party would end Virginia's poll tax, invest in schools for African Americans and establish the state's first Black university. Historian Kevin Levin says, as a result, white segregationists hated him and tried to erase him.

KEVIN LEVIN: When you go and read what Virginia school kids are learning in their history classes through much of the 20th century, Mahone doesn't appear at all.

TURKEN: Today, Virginia has a monument and a few roads that honor Mahone. State lawmaker Josh Cole, who's Black, usually favors getting rid of Confederate tributes. He says it's different with Mahone.

JOSH COLE: You're now stuck with a dilemma. Well, he was a Confederate general. But in his latter years, he did great work with racial reconciliation. We believe people can change.

TURKEN: Cole says the problem is the monuments honoring Confederates who didn't change.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Turken in Williamsburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Turken
After living in North Carolina the past four years, Miami native Sam Turken is back in the city he’s always called home.