A 30-foot-tall pillar honoring the Confederacy will be removed from downtown Decatur — if DeKalb County can find a legal way around a state law keeping it and other Georgia monuments in place.
All except one of the members of the the DeKalb Board of Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to pursue the removal of the towering monument that has stood next to the old county courthouse for 109 years. If successful, DeKalb could be one of the first communities in Georgia to uproot a monument lionizing the South’s Civil War cause.
The resolution orders the county’s lawyers to find options to relocate the obelisk, which refers to Confederate soldiers as members of a ‘“covenant keeping race who held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the Republic.”
State law prohibits Confederate monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion.” But it allows governments to take action to preserve or protect monuments. The resolution notes that the monument has been vandalized twice recently.
Some of those who have lobbied for the monument to come down say it should be shuttled to a cemetery or a museum. There, it would remain in public view but not so prominently.
“We know the importance of symbols in America. We have to recognize that this particular symbol cannot be held up” as an emblem of the community, Mawuli Davis, president of the Beacon Hill Branch of the NAACP, said during public comments to commissioners. “This symbol was erected in 1908 on the heels of the Atlanta Race Riots as a symbol to intimidate African Americans.”
A white mob killed dozens of African Americans during the 1906 riots.
But a lone supporter of the monument in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, retired high school history teacher Chris Billingsley, said it honors Confederate soldiers’ sacrifices.
“It’s about remembrance of the men who fought and died through the Civil War for DeKalb County,” Billingsley told reporters outside the DeKalb Commission meeting. “It’s not about white supremacy, and it’s not about the Ku Klux Klan.”
The county, so far, hasn’t been able to locate any records showing it accepted the monument after it was built by the A. Evans Camp of Confederate Veterans and the Agnes Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, according to the resolution.
If the county doesn’t own the monument, the government could oust it from public property. But if a title attorney determines the monument belongs to the county, the government would have to justify how moving it complies with state law, or ask the Georgia General Assembly to change the law.
The resolution cites the violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August around the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, saying DeKalb’s monument creates a public safety concern.
“We’re in a hostile atmosphere right now,” said Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, the sponsor of the resolution. “We’re in an atmosphere where hate groups and segregationists are being empowered. If that monument is being used to empower those groups, then I think it should be removed and placed in an appropriate location.”
Sara Patenaude, the co-founder of Hate Free Decatur, said the monument should be moved to a place where a more complete history of the Civil War can be told. Some residents say it should be surrounded by other monuments or exhibits to present a fuller account of the South’s history.
“We’re not trying to erase history, and we’re not trying to destroy a monument,” Patenaude said. “We’re trying to say that if you’re going to tell a story, you need to tell the whole story.”
The sole vote against the resolution came from Commissioner Nancy Jester, who said she’s concerned about taking down monuments connected to parts of history that society now finds objectionable.
“I would rather see monuments contextualized rather than destroyed or moved,” Jester wrote in an emailed statement. “As the old courthouse is the home to the DeKalb History Center, it seems fitting and appropriate to keep this relic and others that give us a window into our past, including painful times, at that location.”
Partial text of the Confederate monument in Decatur
“After forty two years another generation bears witness to the future that these men were of a covenant keeping race who held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the Republic. Modest in prosperity, gentle in peace, brave in battle and undespairing in defeat, they knew no law of life but loyalty and truth and civic faith, and to these virtues they consecrated their strength.”
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