Organizers expand movement to remove Decatur monument

  • Bill Banks
  • For the AJC
2:30 p.m Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 Metro Atlanta / State news
Sara Patenaude (right), an historian and PhD candidate at Georgia State University, and Hannah Hill who co-pastors The Church of Mary Magdalene in Decatur, initially organized a “conversation” regarding the Decatur Civil War monument (background) on Aug. 19. Their concerns have since evolved into a movement called “Hate Free Decatur,” which is hosting a two-hour march Sunday, Sept 10. Bill Banks file photo for the AJC

DeKalb community activists Sara Patenaude and Hannah Hill hosted an informal rally focused on the removal of a 109-year-old Civil War-related monument on Decatur’s square on Aug. 19.

In a little over two weeks their movement has not only grown in size and scope, they’ve given themselves the name “Hate Free Decatur.” Now they’re holding a march that will end near the monument.

Patenaude agrees the mission has evolved since the initial event which drew about 70 — an audience almost exclusively white.

“This isn’t entirely about the monument,” she said. “It’s about dismantling the system the monument represents, dismantling white supremacy in Decatur. Our themes are now immigration, affordable housing and increasing segregation of the school system.”

Patenaude has a number of diverse speakers lined up for Sunday, including Mawuli Davis, an Atlanta civil rights and defense attorney and president of the Beacon Hill (Decatur) NAACP. Davis has expressed similar motifs behind his branch’s founding in May 2016, particularly the disproportionality in education between black and white students and the decline in both the city and the schools’ black population.

Indeed, Decatur’s likely never been whiter, even back in 1908 when that monument was commemorated.

The last count about two years ago showed 23.2 percent of City Schools Decatur students enrolled in K-12 are black. A 2014 study from the city showed that from 1990 to 2010 Decatur’s total population went from 60 percent to 73.5 percent white while the white population declined nationally over the same period from 80 percent to 72 percent.

Other Sunday speakers include representatives from the Atlanta and DeKalb NAACP, along with emissaries from the Georgia-Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Council on Islamic-American Relations, the Atlanta North Georgia Labor Council and students from Freedom University (a school for undocumented immigrants).

Despite this sprawling spectrum of concerns, Patenaude emphasizes that first and foremost she wants the monument removed to a less public place, like perhaps Decatur’s cemetery.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said recently “there will not be a speedy resolution” to the monument dilemma, with other city and county officials making comparable remarks.

Partly this is due to a complicated and somewhat opaque state law passed in 2001 that appears to prevent a city or county (the Decatur monument is actually owned by DeKalb County) from removing the monument.

“We’ve gotten legal opinions that say there is no prohibition from moving [the monument],” Patenaude said. “The only prohibition is that it can’t be concealed from public view.”

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