When Alexander and Brendan Stephens were growing up in Athens, their childhoods were filled with stories of their long-dead uncle, Alexander H. Stephens.
He was the vice president of the Confederacy, a longtime Georgia politician who argued that enslavement was the “normal and natural condition” of black people. A bust of Stephens is front and center at the Gold Dome, and he is immortalized in a massive sculpture in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
On Thursday, the great, great, great grand-nephews of Alexander Stephens decided it was time to change history. They issued an open letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly asking them to remove the statue of Stephens from the U.S. Capitol.
“Confederate monuments need to come down,” says the letter (full text below). “Put them in museums where people will learn about the context of their creation, but remove them from public spaces so that the descendants of enslaved people no longer walk beneath them at work and on campus.
“ … Some of our relatives may disagree with our proposal, but they instilled values in us that made it possible for us to write these words: remove the statue of Alexander H. Stephens from the U.S. Capitol.”
Alexander Stephens, 29, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, told the AJC on Thursday, “This is something that both of us have been thinking about deeply for the long time,” said “We both grew up with a deep appreciation of our family history … (but) as we became more dedicated to unraveling this myth, we learned the reality.
The letter from the Stephens family
The Stephens letter was the most unexpected development Thursday in the ever-expanding controversy over Confederate statues and symbols:
» Gov. Nathan Deal said he’s leaving it to lawmakers to figure out what to do with the roughly 100 Confederate memorials across the state. State law makes it illegal to “deface, defile, abuse contemptuously, relocate, remove, conceal or obscure” such memorials. But Deal said he is confident the Legislature will discuss whether it’s proper to prohibit city or county governments from doing what they wish with monuments in their jurisdictions.
» In Augusta, meanwhile, about 250 people turned out Thursday for a protest at the Augusta Confederate Monument. The monument, a 76-foot spire on Broad Street with statues of four prominent Confederate figures around its base and a stone soldier perched on top, is inscribed with these words: “No nation rose so white and fair. None fell so pure of crime.”
» In Decatur, supporters of the obelisk memorializing the Confederacy on the Decatur Square started an online petition to save the monument. An earlier petition seeks to remove it.
» And in Athens, the Demosthenian Literary Society at the University of Georgia, an oratory and debate group, voted late Thursday to remove a portrait of Robert E. Lee from its hall. The vote was 27-0 with one abstention. Alexander Stephens, coincidentally, was a member of the Demosthenians’ rival, the Phi Kappa Literary Society, as a UGA student in 1830.
‘The heritage versus hate idea’
The contemporary Stephens brothers believe they are the most direct descendants of Alexander Stephens, who did not have children of his own.
Brendan Stephens, a mental health therapist living in Athens, said the tide turned for him after the abrupt and deadly violence in Charlottesville, which was triggered by plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.
“It is personal to a lot of people and I think there was a time when I wanted to believe the heritage versus hate idea,” Stephens, 38, said. “But if you really look at the history, that idea falls apart. I don’t think that a lot of people that subscribe to this mythology do it with malicious intent, but I think the impact is clear.”
Each state is permitted to send two statues of its choice to be exhibited in National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol. Georgia chose to send Alexander Stephens in 1927, and a decision by the state to replace Stephens now will come at a cost.
According to the Architect of the Capitol, a state legislature and governor must approve the request for a new statue. It must be of a deceased person “illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services.”
The state must also pay for the new statue, including transportation and removal costs for the old one. All of it is subject to approval by the Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capitol, the entity that oversees the Capitol grounds.
A statement from the governor’s office Thursday said the letter had just come in and Deal had not had a chance to review it.
Alexander Stephens’ ‘Cornerstone Speech’
Born in 1812 in Taliaferro County, Alexander H. Stephens served in the U.S. House from 1843 until 1859. He was elected vice president of the Confederacy in February 1861.
It was also in 1861 that Stephens delivered his infamous “Cornerstone Speech” in Savannah, in which he declared that slavery and racial supremacy were the foundations of the Confederacy.
“Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said. “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”Stephens died in 1883.
The National Statuary Hall Collection was established in 1864 to be a collection of 100 statues donated by each of the states.
In 1902, a state commission chose Stephens as one of the Georgians to represent the state in Statuary Hall. It took 25 years to raise the money and complete the statue. A quote on the base of the statue reads: “I am afraid of nothing on the earth, above the earth, beneath the earth, except to do wrong.”
A year before, in 1926, Georgia placed its first statue — of physician Crawford Long. Coincidentally, Long and Stephens were roommates at UGA.
Many Confederates honored in Statuary Hall
Stephens is one of several Confederates, many in their gray uniforms, with statues in the hall, including: Jefferson Davis (Mississippi); Robert E. Lee (Virginia); Joseph Wheeler (Alabama); James Z. George (Mississippi); Wade Hampton III (South Carolina); Zebulon Baird Vance (North Carolina), John E. Kenna (West Virginia) and Edmund Kirby Smith (Florida).
In 2009, Alabama replaced its statue of Confederate politician Jabez Curry with Helen Keller. Florida already has made plans to remove the statue of Edmund Kirby Smith and replace it.
In 1982, a third Georgian, Martin Luther King Jr., was honored with a bust.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis called in 2015 for the removal of the Stephens statue as part of a push by the Congressional Black Caucus to remove Confederate symbols from the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s the beginning of a movement that will help us move toward the realization that we’re one people, we’re one nation and we have to be sensitive to our own history,” Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time.
Also contributing: AJC staff writers Johnny Edwards, Eric Stirgus, Joshua Sharpe and Greg Bluestein.