Calls grow for removal of Confederate monument in Lawrenceville

Confederate Veterans of Gwinnett Monument (Old Gwinnett County Courthouse): This monument was dedicated in 1993 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Perhaps anticipating today’s flag controversies, it includes this quote by Winston Churchill: “Any people with contempt for their heritage have lost faith in themselves and no nation can long survive without pride in its traditions.” PETE CORSON / pcorson@ajc.com
Confederate Veterans of Gwinnett Monument (Old Gwinnett County Courthouse): This monument was dedicated in 1993 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Perhaps anticipating today’s flag controversies, it includes this quote by Winston Churchill: “Any people with contempt for their heritage have lost faith in themselves and no nation can long survive without pride in its traditions.” PETE CORSON / pcorson@ajc.com

Lawrenceville city leaders have joined the chorus of voices calling for Gwinnett County to remove a Confederate monument from the town square.

In a Wednesday letter to county commissioners that was also sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lawrenceville’s mayor and council members “strongly” requested the statue “be immediately relocated to a more appropriate place for remembrance and education, such as a historic cemetery or museum.”

The statue was erected in 1993.

Confederate symbols naturally conjure up memories of one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history — a time of enslavement, oppression and division in our nation,” the letter says. “It is understandable then why many are sensitive to the appearance and placement of such monuments.”

The request comes after Kirkland Carden and Nabilah Islam called attention to the memorial last month, following the removal of statues in the city of Decatur and elsewhere in metro Atlanta.

Carden, the Democratic candidate for District 1 on the county commission, and Islam, who ran for Congress in the 7th District, started a Change.org petition that has garnered more than 2,200 signatures. Gwinnett Solicitor Brian Whiteside soon took up the cause, filing a request to remove the monument and calling it a “public nuisance.”

While the statue is in Lawrenceville’s square, it is on county property and only Gwinnett County — or a judge — can order its removal.

State law says publicly owned monuments can’t be “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion.” It allows that they can be relocated “to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, and access” when it is necessary to move them for construction or transportation projects.

Using another section of state law, a DeKalb County judge declared the monument in Decatur Square a public nuisance because it was repeatedly vandalized and attracted protesters. Earlier this month, a statue came down in the Henry County city of McDonough and another was removed from the Rockdale County courthouse. Others in Macon, Athens and Savannah have been targeted.

In Gwinnett, County Commissioner Tommy Hunter said he was “totally against” relocating the Lawrenceville statue.

“Clearly a violation of state law,” the Republican said in a text message.

ExplorePhotos of Confederate monuments in metro Atlanta (updated)

Republicans Charlotte Nash, the commission chairman, and Jace Brooks, a county commissioner, said they couldn’t comment on the letter because of the solicitor’s litigation. Commissioner Marlene Fosque, a Democrat, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

One member of the county commission, Democrat Ben Ku, said he is in favor of removing the statue — but he didn’t think such a move would have the board’s support. Ku said he expects any action would happen only after the November election, when all three Republican commissioners will be replaced.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said of moving the statue.

Ku said he would continue to champion the monument’s removal.

“It’s offensive,” he said. “It’s really no different than if we had erected a statue of a giant middle finger.”

The county’s Historical Restoration and Preservation Board plans to meet next week to discuss the fate of the statue, said Aaron Ragans, the board’s chairman. He is going to recommend that it be moved from the historic courthouse, which was also the site of a lynching in the early 1900s.

Ragans said the courthouse “is not the place for something that bears the official seal of the Confederate States of America,” and that the statue only serves as a reminder of years of oppression. He said it was erected around the time of the county’s MARTA referendum and when prominent Black residents were running for political office.

Ragans, who is white, said he found both the timing and the placement “suspicious.”

“That’s an inappropriate place for the monument and it needs to be moved,” he said. “It’s 27 years old. It’s not true history.”

The Lawrenceville letter said the city’s request isn’t to rewrite history. But the city square, they said, is a place “for all people.” As such, the placement of a monument to the Confederate dead “should be given careful consideration.”

“As the county seat of one of the largest counties in the South, we are committed to leading our community by ensuring our words and actions symbolize unity and equality for all,” the letter said.

Mayor David Still and City Manager Chuck Warbington declined additional comment about the letter. A spokesperson said Thursday the city had not received a response from the county; she did not respond to follow-up questions Friday.

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter also spoke in favor of moving the monument, and participated in a July 12 event calling for it to come down.

Porter, a Republican up for reelection this fall, said he hadn’t been aware of the monument until recently. A history major in college, Porter said he has always felt the Confederate monuments should not have been erected.

“When you look at the timing of them, they were not contemporaneous with the war,” he said. “We are going to have to have a discussion in this country about police and law enforcement and criminal justice. If there’s something superfluous that’s a flash point, it doesn’t make sense not to move it to a place where it’s not a flash point.

“I think they should be put in a place where history can be viewed in its entire context, both good and bad.”

Having the statue in Lawrenceville’s square implies approval, Porter said.

Local representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans did not respond to emails seeking comment about whether the statue should stay.

The statue was a gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Ragans said he believes there is no longer a local chapter. No one responded to an emailed request for comment at the group’s Virginia headquarters, and a phone call went unanswered.

On its web page, the president, Nelma Crutcher, said in a statement that she is “saddened that some people find anything connected with the Confederacy to be offensive.”

“It is our sincere wish that our great nation and its citizens will continue to let its fellow Americans, the descendants of Confederate soldiers, honor the memory of their ancestors,” she wrote.

The July 15 letter sent to Gwinnett County commissioners. It was signed by Lawrenceville Mayor David Still, Mayor Pro-Tem Bob Clark, City Manager Chuck Warbington, along with council members Victoria Jones, Glenn Martin and Keith Roche.

“In 1993, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners allowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to erect a Confederate monument on the grounds of the historic county courthouse on the Lawrenceville Square to honor Gwinnett citizens who died in the Civil War. It should be noted, the UDC was founded expressly to recognize deceased Confederate veterans since there was no government effort in place to mark the passing of countless soldiers. While the recognition of fallen veterans is important, the placement of such a monument should be given careful consideration.

“As the City of Lawrenceville prepares to commemorate its bicentennial in 2021, it provides us a unique opportunity for reflection. Symbols and monuments are a tangible connection to our history, creating opportunities to remember our past and inform the ideals and actions that guide us in the present. Confederate symbols naturally conjure up memories of one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history – a time of enslavement, oppression and division in our nation. It is understandable then why many are sensitive to the appearance and placement of such monuments.

“The Lawrenceville Square serves as a place of prominence within our community. It is a place for public gatherings, celebrations, events and entertainment for all people. With this in mind and after careful thought and consideration, the Lawrenceville City Council strongly requests that this memorial be immediately relocated to a more appropriate place for remembrance and education, such as a historic cemetery or museum. This request is not an attempt to remove or rewrite history. It is rather an intentional effort to preserve the dignity of those memorialized in a setting that allows for healthy discourse and contemplation. As the county seat of one of the largest counties in the South, we are committed to leading our community by ensuring our words and actions symbolize unity and equality for all.”

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