Norfolk Southern seeks Atlanta’s blessing to remove Confederate statue

The statue of Samuel Spencer stands in front of the Norfolk Southern building on Peachtree Street on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.  The city owns the statue and Norfolk Southern is asking permission to store the confederate monument of their first president, until they decide what to do with it.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The statue of Samuel Spencer stands in front of the Norfolk Southern building on Peachtree Street on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. The city owns the statue and Norfolk Southern is asking permission to store the confederate monument of their first president, until they decide what to do with it. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Most people recognize Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Washington, D.C., but its lesser-known precursor exists in Atlanta.

A bronze replica of Samuel Spencer, the first president of what became the Norfolk Southern Corporation, sits in front of the rail company’s David R. Goode building in Midtown. Its sculptor, the famous Daniel Chester French, loosely mimicked the Spencer statue design when creating the colossal Lincoln figure in 1920.

But its presence is on borrowed time due to Spencer’s ties to the Confederacy.

“This was put up in 1910,” artist Gregor Turk said. “That’s during Jim Crow, but … this is — I think — very different than a lot of the Confederate monuments that were put in place to intimidate.”

Although Atlanta owns the statue, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show Norfolk owns the private property it sits upon. When the company sold the land to Cousins Properties in 2019, Norfolk did not create a site for the statue at the company’s new headquarters.

The statue of Samuel Spencer stands in front of the Norfolk Southern building on Peachtree Street on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.  The city owns the statue and Norfolk Southern is asking permission to store the confederate monument of their first president, until they decide what to do with it.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The statue of Samuel Spencer stands in front of the Norfolk Southern building on Peachtree Street on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. The city owns the statue and Norfolk Southern is asking permission to store the confederate monument of their first president, until they decide what to do with it. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“Once NSC leaves the Goode building, the statue’s current placement will no longer be appropriate,” according to Norfolk executive Patti Carroll in a letter to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs last July.

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council is expected to vote on the statue’s relocation. Norfolk previously asked the mayor’s office for permission to relocate the statue at the company’s expense, records show.

Norfolk’s request to remove and store the statue in a Norfolk-owned warehouse represents “a significant savings to the City,” according to documents obtained by the AJC. The estimated cost is not listed.

What the documents do show, however, is Atlanta’s concern with the statue’s legacy.

“This monument is now deemed controversial because it was recently published that the railroad founder had served in the Confederate Calvary. Because the historical narrative has changed recently, the best plan is to store the monument until a permanent solution for displaying the monument can be determined,” according to a legislation request to the City Council signed by Carmen Chubb, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s chief of staff.

A Norfolk spokesman said in a statement that the company is pleased it finalized an agreement with the city to relocate the statue.

“Our state-of-the-art headquarters building, now under construction in Midtown, will feature new public art that represents and celebrates the future of our changing industry and company. At the request of the new ownership of the Goode building, and to allow the City to determine an appropriate, new location, we have agreed to house the Spencer statue temporarily at one of our warehouse facilities,” the statement says.

Spencer, who died at 59 in a Virginia train collision, previously served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, according to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The statue of Samuel Spencer stands in front of the Norfolk Southern building on Peachtree Street on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.  The city owns the statue and Norfolk Southern is asking permission to store the confederate monument of their first president, until they decide what to do with it.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
The statue of Samuel Spencer stands in front of the Norfolk Southern building on Peachtree Street on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. The city owns the statue and Norfolk Southern is asking permission to store the confederate monument of their first president, until they decide what to do with it. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Turk said Spencer was only 18 when the war interrupted his education. Spencer’s statue features a plaque that identifies him as a Georgian, a Confederate soldier and the first president of Southern Railway. Turk said the Southern Railway Company employees paid for its creation.

The statue was repeatedly moved across Atlanta for decades before it reached Midtown.

The rail company’s decision today comes amid an ongoing debate surrounding the nation’s legacy with Confederate imagery and the dialogue on systemic racism. In February, Democratic state lawmakers announced new bills in an effort to prohibit Confederate monuments across Georgia.

Turk said Georgia needs to replace controversial monuments to racism with memorials to women and people of color. At the same time, he said Spencer’s sculpture should be relocated somewhere with a “connection to railways,” or where people can learn the full context of Spencer’s life.

“He’s a Confederate soldier, but that’s not why the sculpture was erected,” Turk said. “It was erected because he was the president of the railway.”

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