By Randy Arrington
LURAY, July 21 — There will be no referendum for voters this fall, in large part, because there is no longer any question: The two Confederate monuments in town are privately owned, according to the Town.
Deed research commissioned by the Town of Luray last month determined that the Town did not hold the deeds — or any rights — to the two properties, despite more than a century of maintenance and upkeep.
The Barbee monument on East Main Street remains deeded from the late 19th century to its creator and “original trustee,” Herbert Barbee — and thus now, his descendants. The town declined to identify those individuals with whom they have been communicating in recent weeks about ownership and future maintenance of the property at East Main and Reservoir Avenue.
“I’ve not been cleared by the family, nor the attorney, to reveal the name,” Town Manager Steve Burke stated on Tuesday.
He did, however, note that the Town had been in contact with two heirs, referred to as “grandchildren,” with one in-state and one out of state.
“The Town has reached out to the heirs to confirm how they would like to proceed with future maintenance,” Burke said.
The heirs of the 1898 Barbee statue have been reported by other media outlets to be Averum and Virginia Hinkle, but that has not been confirmed by PVN. Page County Commissioner of Revenue Becky Smith said on Tuesday that the monument is listed among the county’s non-taxable properties simply as “East End Confederate Monument” with no owner cited.
The 1917 Confederate monument adjacent to the Luray Post Office was originally thought to be owned by the Virginia Historical Society. When the Town contacted the organization, they “indicated that they do not believe they are the owners,” according to an earlier interview with Burke. Further research indicated that the deeded owner was originally the Confederate Memorial Association.
Frederick Taylor Amiss was among the children of Civil War veterans and survivors of the war that formed that organization more than a century ago. They began discussing a second monument in Luray about 16 years after the Page County sculptor Herbert Barbee’s statue had been dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Amiss’ granddaughter, Frances Menefee, wants the current members of the UDC to help maintain the monuments. She met with Burke to discuss that possibility on Friday morning.
“We don’t want something to happen to it,” Menefee said on Friday. “So someone is going to need to take responsibility.”
Menefee plans to take the issue of continued maintenance and upkeep of one, or both, Confederate monument(s) before fellow UDC members at their September meeting. The group has about “10 to 12” members that attend monthly meetings, except during the summer.
However, Menefee clearly stated on Friday that neither she (as an individual) nor the UDC wanted to claim ownership of the properties. Since, the Confederate Memorial Association no longer exists, the question of ownership still seems to be unresolved.
The “west end monument”, as it is sometimes called, is also listed with the county as a non-taxable property under the title “Confederate Soldiers Monument” with no stated owner, according to Smith.
The Commissioner of the Revenue confirmed that the two properties have never been taxed by the county, and noted that they would remain that way until the filing of the properties changed. Now that the two monuments have been deemed private property by the Town of Luray, it would seem that their status would change. However, one of the properties still does not have an identified owner.
“Unless something new is recorded [in the circuit court], there’s not really anything we can do [in terms of taxing the property]. I can’t just change it unless something new is recorded,” Smith said. “But even if it were deemed taxable at this point, where would the tax bill go?”
Despite potential lingering questions on ownership, the responsibility of continued maintenance seems to be at the forefront of the current discussion. And even if the UDC decides that they can’t take on the responsibility alone, Mayor Barry Presgraves said others are “lining up” for the opportunity.
“[The monuments] are privately owned; they are not the town’s,” Presgraves said last week. “I would like to see them stay here, and if the UDC can’t do it, I have 501 3(c) groups lining up that are willing to provide perpetual care of them.”
The mayor, however, declined to name any of the groups who had contacted him by name, but he wondered out loud about the identity of a late night volunteer who scrubbed off spray paint stains and removed the tarps covering the monuments.
“I sure would like to send him a letter to thank him,” Mayor Presgraves said.
On two consecutive Tuesday nights, Cliff Thomas spent two-and-a-half hours on each monument to get the remainder of the spray paint left by vandals on June 1.
“As soon as I heard about the [vandalism], I did the research and reached out to the town,” Thomas said. “I didn’t hear anything back, so I decided something needed to be done.”
Thomas, the owner of H2ecO Pressure Washing, took chemicals purchased by his father, Bucky Thomas, and worked with a friend, Daniel Housden, to remove the last of the stains left by the vandals. The Town had left tarps on the statues to keep the sun from baking in the stains further.
“I’m a local here in town, and nobody wants to see the spray paint, nobody wants to see the profanity, and nobody wants to see the slurs against the police officers who protect us,” Thomas said over the weekend. “It doesn’t matter what the statue was… if it had been a statue of Martin Luther King [Jr.], I would have done the same thing.”
Although, Thomas did the research and got the right chemicals to do the job, the Town hesitated on his “pro bono” offer because they wanted to make sure they were proceeding in the correct manner, according to the town manger.
“We contacted some paint removal professionals in D.C. and they had stated that using pressure washing could potentially do more damage,” Burke said, noting that quotes came in for around $1,300. “So, we just wanted to make sure that we were proceeding in the correct manner.”
As volunteers and organizations consider stepping up to offer their time, money and labor to maintain the properties for years into the future, there may still be one other hurdle to get over.
A Facebook group has formed calling itself “Citizens for the Relocation of Confederate Monuments in Luray Virginia”.
Since going live last month, the group has gained nearly 200 members of mostly millennials — and some of their parents — mixed between those who live locally, those who lived here at one time, and their friends, according to organizer Chris Hurlbert.
“It’s as much about education as anything else,” Hurlbert said recently of his efforts. “After the Civil War, whites in many communities used these statues to terrorize black people. For me, it’s all about facts. I want people to know why these statues were put up.”
Hurlbert was born in Alaska, but moved to Stanley, Virginia at the age of 5. His father had gotten work at Shenandoah National Park as a geologist. He attend Stanley Elementary School and graduated from Page County High School in 2007. Today, at age 31, he says he works for the third-largest advertising firm in the world located in New York City, where he resides.
The PCHS alum claims his long-distance interest in Luray — and specifically its Confederate monuments — is a sense of still having a “close connection to the place where I grew up.”
On Aug. 19, 2017, Hulbert sent a letter to Mayor Presgraves following the white supremest rally in Charlottesville.
“The statues, which were built to honor the soldiers who fought against the United States of America in the Civil War, and for a white-dominate culture and society, should no longer be something we as Americans, or as Luray-ians, aspire to,” the letter reads. “America is, and forever will be, a land of inclusion and opportunity for people of all races. We must double down on these values, as they are what make our nation so great, and why the people of this world admire us.”
Hurlbert believes the current movement across the country — and the world — following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, has exploded because of the focus people have been allowed to give it during the current pandemic.
“This pandemic has accelerated the need for change,” Hurlbert said. “If we had not been in a pandemic, I may have been too busy to deal with it, but I read about it and studied these statues and now I can not, not think about it.”
At a June meeting of the Luray Council, Hurlbert sent a letter to be read as public comment to council members stating: “The statues were created during reconstruction and the Jim Crow era to show people of color that the whites were in control, regardless of new laws and their supposed equality. They remained standing through the civil rights movement, when black people were finally given the right to vote, and when Jim Crow was abolished. They are still standing today, during a moment when America is as divided as it’s ever been, on the basis of race.”
The organizer believes the statues should be relocated from their “prominent positions” in town because they may hurt a big economic driver for the area — tourism.
“I feel it will position Luray better for the future,” Hurlbert says of relocating the statues. “A majority of people coming to Luray are coming from diverse areas. It could cause people to not come there. There are [web]sites being developed that lists places with these statues. It could hurt the town.”
Hurlbert seemed committed to the cause where it counts — in his wallet. He stated that he will put up funds, along with members, solicitations, and any donations, in order to get to statues “removed and placed in museums where they belong” — or as his 2017 letter states: “To ‘preserve’ these statues, consider donating them to an area museum, where their history can truly and accurately be explained.”
“I feel passionately about this. This is not a political issue; it’s a humans rights issue,” Hurlbert said recently. “This is happening everywhere and there’s a reason for that. If a candidate will step up and say they are against these statues, I will donate to their campaign.”
For now, the Confederate monuments remain. Now with a fresh cleaning, they still stand watch for the “northern invaders.” It remains uncertain if they will be caught up in the same whirlwind that has seen Shenandoah University remove the name of Harry F. Byrd from its School of Business, or Shenandoah County change the name of Stonewall Jackson High School, or the Town of Elkton’s consideration of Merck’s request to rename Stonewall Riverside Park (Merck donated the land).
When Luray resident and business owner Cliff Thomas worked for hours to clean the two Confederate monuments in recent weeks, he did so in the middle of the night because it was cooler to work and the sun wasn’t baking in the stains of vandals. But he also did it for some other important reasons.
“When we took the tarps off, we didn’t want children seeing the profanity before we could get it off,” Thomas said. “Also, we didn’t draw a crowd that was proud of it, and we didn’t draw a crowd that was mad at us.
“We just wanted to get it cleaned up for the community,” he added. “Like I said before, I’ve lived here all my life and I want to see the statues stay… and it doesn’t matter if it had been a statue of Martin Luther King, I would have done the same thing.”