Bethani Thomas is a lifelong Georgian, but she didn’t learn about the cannon near the DeKalb History Center until her sophomore year at Decatur High School.
The high school senior said she always passed the cannon after school with little notice, until her mother said the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed it there in 1906 to honor the Creek War of 1836. Its meaning has become a flashpoint for Thomas and other students who say the cannon is a symbol of oppression in the heart of the city square.
“Being an African-American, I never felt as though my presence was valued in Decatur,” she said. “Having Confederate monuments just confirms I don’t really matter.”
Thomas and her peers are now leading an effort to remove the cannon from its post at the Old DeKalb County Courthouse. Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said in a statement that a resolution supporting its removal will be considered at the City Commission’s Dec. 21 meeting.
Fonta High, a therapist at Decatur high, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that today’s students are asking questions about issues that are not part of school curriculum.
“Although their local history is tied to the American history related to what they’re learning, it just speaks to whitewashing that’s been happening across American curriculums,” High said. “The stories of indigenous Native American peoples are not fully told.”
Documents from the National Archives and Records Administration show the United States government enacted policies in the 1800s to push indigenous peoples living east of the Mississippi into the westward territory that would later be called Oklahoma. Treaties were formed, but records from the Digital Library of Georgia show those promises unraveled into war.
“For the majority of Muscogee people, the process of severing ties to a land they felt so much a part of proved impossible,” according to the Muscogee Creek Nation’s website. “The U.S. Army enforced the removal of more than 20,000 Muscogee (Creeks) to Indian Territory in 1836 and 37.”
Garrett said her commission is considering the resolution after the students mentioned it on Dec. 7. The pressure from students, who are supported by the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, comes after a year rife with racial unrest due in part to high-profile killings of Black men.
Decatur students in May called for the expulsion of a white student, who is the son of a school administrator and the nephew of a Georgia Supreme Court justice, because he was on video wielding a toy gun as he used racial slurs and mentioned shooting Black people. It was Decatur’s third racist video to emerge online this year.
Tensions also flared this summer when a 30-foot obelisk located a few feet away from the Decatur cannon was removed in June. The monument was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor DeKalb’s Confederate soldiers. The Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans threatened legal action, but DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger declared the monument a public nuisance and told officials to act.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans declined to comment on the cannon.
Beacon Hill is soliciting signatures in an online petition urging the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners to pass a resolution to remove the cannon. The county is responsible for its removal. Beacon Hill is working with the Decatur Arts Alliance and Decatur Makers to have artists submit proposals for public art that can replace the cannon.
Next year, Decatur high school students and staff will work with the Georgia Historical Society to install a historic marker downtown to memorialize Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism in the city more than 60 years ago.
High said students have told her the cannon should be given to the Muscogee Nation for them to decide how it should be handled. Thomas, who said the students are planning a Zoom protest for Monday, said she hopes the commission and DeKalb County will understand how its removal will make Decatur better for people of color.
“Just having the commission on our side gives us that boost to have this cannon removed,” Thomas said.
Residents can watch the Decatur city commission meeting live from the city website or Comcast channel 25.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution