Communities across the country protested after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner, and with them a new push to take down Confederate monuments. And Loudoun was no exception.
What was planned to be a relatively sedate affair in Leesburg at the end of May turned into the “I Can’t Breathe Walk Through Leesburg,” packing the streets of Leesburg with shoulder-to-shoulder protestors.
It was named after some of Floyd’s last words, as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, and the phrase “I can’t breathe” became rallying cry for protesters again. The phrase was also prominent in previous protests following the death of another black man, Eric Garner, who said the same thing shortly before he died after being arrested in New York City.
The Leesburg protest was the first of many in Loudoun—and not even the largest. A protest in Sterling organized and led by high school student Ocean Akinotcho attracted thousands of protestors, the largest protest in Loudoun of the summer. Young people also organized a large protest in Ashburn, a candlelight vigil in Sterling organized by a Potomac Falls High School coach and teacher Stephane Longchamp brought out around 500 people, more than 300 people gathered at a vigil in Round Hill, and another protest in Leesburg also brought out hundreds.
The summer would prove the tipping point for many long-standing debates in Loudoun, such as the fight around the Confederate statue that stood in front of the Loudoun County courthouse.
In January, months before the new protests began, county supervisors asked the General Assembly for legislation allowing them to move war monuments like the Confederate soldier that stood in front of the county courthouse. Shortly thereafter, supervisors took up Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling)’s push to rename a spot at Claude Moore Park known as “Negro Hill,” instead pushing to name it after the Nokes family, which farmed the land in the area.
The General Assembly passed that legislation, and supervisors started wheels turning to take the Leesburg statue, the “Silent Sentinel,” down. The Daughter of the Confederacy, which originally funded the statue in 1906, stepped in to reclaim what they said was their property. That averted a lengthy process—shortly after they asserted their claim, the statue was removed in secrecy overnight.
Other Confederate and segregationist namesakes also started coming down. The School Board voted to change the Loudoun County High School mascot, formerly the Raiders after the Confederate cavalry unit led by Col. John Singleton Mosby. The new mascot is the Captains.
Similarly, Loudoun County supervisors voted to start cataloguing other places named for figures who are mostly known for their ties to segregation or the Confederacy, and to ask the state to rename Harry Byrd Highway and John Mosby Highway. Harry Byrd is best known for leading “massive resistance” to integration in Virginia.
The nationwide focus on police violence also led to a renewed conversation around police oversight—one which drew resistance from Loudoun Sheriff Michael Chapman and Leesburg Police Chief Greg Brown, who both opposed citizen oversight panels. Meanwhile, the Town of Purcellville created a “Community Policing Advisory Committee,” a proposal in part by Police Chief Cynthia McAlister.
And in December, supervisors voted to replace the World War I memorial plaque in front of the courthouse—the current plaque is racially segregated, and will be replaced with one that lists the names of Black and white people who died in the war together.
There is likely more to come—supervisors expect an inventory of other racist place names in May or June.