STUART, Va. — For many years, a portrait of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart peered down from a wall inside the Patrick County Courthouse in the town of Stuart, which was named for the Confederate hero, but that portrait is gone.
It wasn’t removed by art thieves or remodelers, but a local judge who personally took down the portrait, citing the racist history it allegedly represents — an act members of a local J.E.B. Stuart preservation group reacted to Wednesday with surprise and dismay.
“I’m not happy with the situation,” said Roger Hayden of Claudville, who is on the Patrick County Board of Supervisors in addition to serving as a member of the board of directors of the J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Trust headquartered in Ararat. It was formed in 1991 to preserve the 75-acre homeplace and promote its heritage, including hosting a Civil War encampment and re-enactment there every October.
Until being contacted by a Mount Airy reporter Wednesday, Hayden had not heard about the recent decision by Judge Martin Clark to remove the portrait from the venerable courthouse in Stuart, where it long occupied a wall in Circuit Court.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Hayden said of that decision. “I’m totally against moving anything.”
He said the portrait’s removal might have been understandable had someone protested its presence in the courthouse. But he is aware of no complaints being registered about the picture.
Tom Bishop, another member of the birthplace trust board, also reacted to the portrait’s removal Wednesday, saying that he had talked with several people about the situation. “It concerns me,” he said.
The first person Bishop heard from was a local insurance agent “who sent me a note and said, ‘I guess they’re going to change the name of the town of Stuart and do away with the birthplace.’”
That seemed to typify much of the response to Judge Clark’s action which some see as the latest attempt to do away with symbols such as the Confederate flag and other reminders of the South’s Civil War history.
“I hate all this stuff is happening,” said Cyndi Vipperman of Mount Airy, another member of the birthplace trust board, who was unaware of the Stuart portrait’s removal until a reporter called.
“I’m extremely upset at this point,” was Vipperman’s initial reaction.
Hayden said he planned to spread word about the portrait banishment to others to make them aware. “I’ll put it on Facebook now.”
In a lengthy statement distributed to area media organizations, Judge Clark explained that he decided to take down the portrait to remove any element of “prejudice” from the courtroom.
“This will no doubt anger, perplex and disappoint many residents of our county, perhaps even the majority of people who live here,” Clark wrote in part regarding his action.
“It will be an unpopular decision in many quarters, especially given that the courthouse is located in a town named in Stuart’s honor. Still, it is my goal — and my duty as a judge — to provide a trial setting that is perceived by all participants as fair, neutral and without so much as a hint of prejudice.”
Clark continued, “Confederate symbols are, simply put, offensive to African-Americans, and this reaction is based on fact and clear, straightforward history.”
Yet critics question that line of reasoning, albeit by a powerful judicial official in Patrick County.
“It’s just our heritage, that’s all it is,” Hayden said of implications that images associated with Confederate history reflect hate instead.
“I’m not a fan of slavery, but I’m proud of my heritage,” said Vipperman, whose great-aunt had a homeplace near the birthplace just across the Virginia line from Surry County. To know that her family’s land bordered that of “a great man that was a part of history, it makes me proud,” added Vipperman, a graphic artist who created the signs on the birthplace grounds.
Her work at the site dates to the 1990s, before she became a member of the board.
Bishop, meanwhile, said Clark’s full statement about the portrait’s removal is an eloquent and thoughtful treatment of the situation, but said it contains misinformation — a statement that Stuart himself owned slaves.
“As far as I know the land (in Ararat) was never in his name,” said Bishop, who has researched Stuart’s history thoroughly.
“To say he owned slaves is a false statement.”
Bishop and others wonder what came be done in reaction to Clark’s decision.
“You can’t dispute the judge — what he says goes,” Bishop said. “It’s his courthouse.”
Hayden, however, said he and other members of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors might have some say in the matter, after being asked if it has any financial or other control over the courthouse. “Yeah, we keep it up,” he said.
The Dan River District supervisor said he hadn’t talked to other board members, but the Stuart portrait likely will be an item for discussion at the board’s next meeting on Sept. 14. “I’ll certainly bring it up,” Hayden said.
Vipperman said the matter also probably will be addressed by the birthplace board at its meeting next Tuesday.
Bishop said the Stuart portrait in question is a unique rendering of the Confederate hero which he has never encountered anywhere else. He is hoping it can at least be displayed at some other local venue.
“I’d like to see them put it in the museum,” he said of the Patrick County Historical Society and Museum in Stuart.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693.