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Considering WV ’s status and statues

Today is West Virginia’s birthday, and there won’t be any cake in downtown Morgantown because of the pandemic.

You won’t have to worry about mustering the air to blow out 157 candles.

But, there’s still a question to consider.

When is a hero … not?

One way to sociologically fill one’s lungs for such an answer is by undertaking a mini-road trip.

Interstate 79 unspools 40 miles from Morgantown to Clarksburg.

Exit 119 funnels you onto U.S. Route 50, and the Second Street ramp threads you downtown.

After a couple of turns and traffic lights, you’ll eventually encounter Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, astride his steed, in front of the Harrison County Courthouse on West Main.

His statue has been there since 1953, a year before Brown v. the Board.

That’s when the United Daughters of the Confederacy decreed such real estate would be the perfect hometown point of honor for the officer.

Jackson, who was born in this then-western Virginia city in 1824, was a West Point graduate and Robert E. Lee confidante.

He commanded soldiers in the Mexican War, resigning his commission after that conflict ended in 1848 to teach physics and artillery techniques at the Virginia Military Institute.

In 1861, he buttoned up a gray uniform to again lead troops after the colonial state seceded from the Union and the war between North and South was full-on.

He earned his nickname and his major general’s stripes during the Battle of First Manassas.

Jackson died from wounds suffered in a friendly fire incident during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Waiting to exhale

His death on May 10, 1863, would come a little more than a month before this scraggly — and somewhat mountainous patch in the boonies of the Commonwealth — would successfully engineer a succession of its own, with Abraham Lincoln’s help.

Jackson’s grave still carried newly turned earth when West Virginia became the 35th State in the Union on June 20, 1863.

Emphasis on “Union,” as these climes trended more Blue than Gray.

The Clarksburg general, though, was on the wrong end of an ideological clash over real estate that threatened to void the warranty of the-then (not-so) United States of America.

He also owned slaves himself.

Yet, he got an honoring work of art.

In fact, 157 years after his death and West Virginia’s statehood, he just won another land battle.

The Harrison County Commission this past week voted 2-1 to allow his statue to stay  where it is.

There had been talk of a sanctioned removal of the work.

In a post-killing-of-George Floyd world, that makes Charlene Marshall want to catch her breath a little.

“It wouldn’t bother me one bit if they all went away,” the first Black female mayor in Morgantown history said.

She’s talking about the Stonewall Jackson statue, and the other ones like it.

Gasps of hard air

Marshall, who served as mayor in the early 2000s and was later elected to West Virginia’s House of Delegates, grew up in Morgantown and Monongalia County when people of a certain pigment couldn’t always go through the front door.

She was able to keep her perspective, she said, because she came up in Osage, a racially diverse enclave carved into a hillside near Morgantown.

Osage was a Melting Pot, stirred by a coal miner’s shovel.

There were people of color, just up from Alabama.

Italians and Poles just over on the boat.

The Russians were coming, even, from that still exotic land of onion-dome churches and mesmerizing vodka — before the Iron Curtain clamped down.

Osage was accents.

Smatterings of languages, other than English.

And everyone’s dad looking the same (Black) when he emerged from the maw of mine at the end of his shift.

In the doorway of her teens, she gasped at those unaltered photographs of Emmitt Till’s mutilated corpse that were published in Jet, the magazine her family subscribed to faithfully.

“How could anybody do that to another person? How could anybody do that to a little boy?”

In comes the good air …

Marshall’s good friend Jack Bowman, who is not Black, was notching his growing-up years in West Virginia at roughly the same time.

The retired law school professor and Morgantown toastmaster always unfurls the 35-star version of the American flag in honor of West Virginia statehood.

He isn’t broaching any civic protocols in doing so, he says.

For him, it’s about history.

Respecting it, and not repeating a lot of it, if you can help it.

Bowman was WVU student body president in 1960.

Three years later, as a student at the university’s College of Law, he was instrumental in bringing the mast of the USS West Virginia to Oglebay Hall, in that centennial year of statehood.

The ship, lovingly called, the “Wee-Vee,” by its crew, was rendered dead in the water at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Dorie Miller became a hero on the Wee-Vee that day.

Miller was a big kid from Texas doing the only job the U.S. Navy deemed Black individuals of that time  capable of doing.

 He was a steward, sorting laundry below deck when he felt the first whumps of the explosions.

He propelled himself onto the deck to scoop up every wounded crew mate he saw.

 It wasn’t just adrenaline.

 The muscular Miller was also the ship’s boxing champion.

He would be recognized with the Navy Cross for his bravery that day.

 Every breath you take

That’s good history, the professor emeritus said, and that’s what the mast of the USS West Virginia represents.

Confederate statues, said Bowman — who states he’s a life member of the NAACP — are bad history.

That doesn’t mean, though, he said, that they should be vandalized or destroyed — even if they do represent the less-shining side of the American experience.

Because history, he said, is history.

“We need to see them,” he said.

“That way, we’ll always be reminded of where we’ve been, and where we still need to go.”

 During one of his daily COVID-19 briefings, Gov. Jim Justice was recently asked whether he felt this way about the state’s Confederate statues — another  of  Jackson sits on the Capitol grounds in Charleston —  or whether he supported their removal.

Justice said he felt his answer would surprise people.

While he doesn’t believe he has the authority to make the decision himself — that could require a vote by the legislature, or there may be, in some instances, historical societies that  have some say — he says he’s less concerned with preserving monuments of history than he is about the future of West Virginia.

“I feel like our Capitol is a place to where all people should always feel comfortable and at ease,” Justice said. “I’m concerned about what’s going to happen for West Virginians and trying to bring goodness to their life tomorrow.

“I am very mindful and respectful of all of our histories, but at the same time, I want to look to our future. I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable here. …  I don’t know how to answer it any more plainly than just that.

 “This is our Capitol, this is our state, this is our people.”

The future is now

Marshall, meanwhile, will never forget the history and symbolism of those balcony seats at the Metropolitan Theater.

As mayor, she was part of the group of Townies and West Virginians, people born here and otherwise, who oversaw the first restorations of the now ornate, iconic venue which had fallen into bad repair.

Marshall stood on the stage as Morgantown’s elected leader and looked up at the balcony.

When she was a kid, and wanted to see a movie, she had to sit there. In that section, because that’s just the way it was.

She had chills, she said. Really.

And it was breath-taking, she said. Really.

Look at me now, she was thinking. Look at us now.

“When you work together, there’s just so much good that can be accomplished.”

A group photograph preserved it. They looked just like statues up there.

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