Lake Pelham, which was named after a Confederate soldier, will eventually have a new name.
By a 5-4 vote during its Feb. 9 meeting, the Culpeper Town Council decided to rename the lake dubbed after Alabama-native Major John Pelham. Council members in favor of the renaming included Frank Reaves Jr., Meaghan Taylor, Jamie Clancey, Billy Yowell and Pranas Rimeikis. Those opposed were Jon Russell, Keith Brown, Keith Price and Mayor Michael Olinger.
Pelham died in Culpeper stemming from injuries suffered when an exploded artillery shell struck his head during the 1863 Battle of Kelly’s Ford. A local Civil War driving tour guide explains that Robert E. Lee referred to him as the “gallant Pelham.” In addition to being noticed by Lee, the guide explains that Pelham “also attracted the attention of young ladies like Bessie Shackleford.”
“Pelham visited Miss Shackelford, attended a party in Col. Welby Carter’s room in the Virginia Hotel...and the next morning gaily rode toward Kelly’s Ford as word of an imminent battle reached the town. That night, his motionless body was returned to the Shackelford house where he soon died,” the guide states.
While the exact origins of the name were previously unknown and the lake was merely believed to have been named after Pelham, a Feb. 9 article in The Culpeper Star-Exponent shed light on the naming process. According to the article, newspaper staff tracked down the history by locating a 1975 story in its archives that explained the town and Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District held a “Name the Lake Contest.” The article states that Paul Hounshell won the contest by suggesting that the lake be named after John Pelham.
Before voting on the name change, Mayor Michael Olinger said the matter should go to a referendum because having nine elected officials decide for the entire population is not fair.
Councilman Pranas Rimeikis opposed the referendum, saying such an action would politicize the matter. If it was necessary, Councilman Jon Russell said he would vote for the referendum but that he would rather “just end this tonight” and keep the name.
Keith Price spoke vehemently in opposition of the name change and pondered what impact it would have on Lake Pelham Drive, Pelham Street and other roads named after Confederate soldiers.
“There are ripple effects that we have to think through before we walk down that path,” he said.
While Councilwoman Jamie Clancey understood the desire to hold a referendum, she said renaming the lake is a compromise. Right now, she said, the town is not changing road names and the council understands that would burden residents who would have to change addresses.
Renaming the lake, she added, is not causing division amongst citizens. Instead, she said it is the defensiveness of some who oppose the name change that is causing division.
“A name like Pelham - who was a fighter for the Confederacy and slavery - does have an impact on the people that it does means something to,” she said.
Citing The Culpeper Star-Exponent article, Russell noted that L.B. Henretty - a prominent resident for whom the chamber of commerce’s citizen of the year award is named - was on the Soil and Water District Conservation that held the lake’s naming contest. He said sentiments that the lake’s naming “was the genesis of some racist plot” is offensive to history and a good man. The name, he added, was not decided out of spite by Culpeper citizens.
In his 30 years on the town council, Billy Yowell said he received more citizen input regarding the lake’s name than he has on any other issue. The feedback, he said, was “almost evenly split.” Yowell said a referendum should be considered so everyone has a voice in the matter, but he ultimately voted to change the name.
Earlier in the meeting, the town council also passed a resolution celebrating Black residents' contributions to Culpeper. The resolution notes that the Black community’s role in the town has been previously undervalued. It pledges that the council will work to commemorate Culpeper’s rich Black heritage. Clancey said that approving the name change is a way for the town to take responsibility for a history that perpetuated racism while living up to the resolution’s promise.
“Not changing is saying that you are not ready to listen,” she said.
Price said renaming the lake is not necessary to follow through on the promise made in the resolution, which he proudly had a role in assembling. Instead, he said the town can name other buildings or properties after notable Black residents. He noted that Pelham was not just a name, but a reminder of how the town was devastated by the Civil War.
Price added that he is “damn proud” to have Confederate soldiers in his bloodline. In addition to street names, he predicted that soon the courthouse’s Confederate monument will go away.
Then, Price said, “it’s all forgotten.”
Clancey agreed that Pelham is not just a name, saying “you’re lucky if you can hear this conversation and think ‘oh, it’s just a name, it’s just a body of water, it doesn’t mean anything to me.’” She said the town should arrive at a name that represents the town and all of its residents “because Lake Pelham just doesn’t.” To those who are offended by items being renamed and monuments taken down, she suggested pondering how people without voices felt when those items were erected or named.
Councilman Keith Brown said he struggled in arriving at his decision to oppose the name change. His main concern was businessman Joe Daniel, who has been a strong proponent of the name change and has offered to offset any costs associated with renaming. He said money should not influence any decisions and the town should fund any costs.
Brown also asked: “Where does it end?”
“There’s no doubt, with it being a political society that we live in, it will be the next street and the next street and the next street,” Brown said.
For something to end, Clancey said “it has to start.”
“Why not start now?” she asked.