Marty Meeks’ roots in Hampton go back generations. His parents’ families both moved into the area in the 1800s. He has ancestors buried in various cemeteries around the city. Some fought in the Civil War.
“I was just proud they stood for something,” the city councilman said. “What am I supposed to do, just forget what my ancestors fought for? That might be what people are afraid of, that it might be forgotten.”
One of those memorials, the Nash Farm Battlefield and Museum, shut down earlier this month after the nonprofit operating the site withdrew their donated artifacts. The move followed a request from Henry County Commissioner Dee Clemmons to remove the Confederate flag that flew outside the museum.
Like many counties surrounding Atlanta, Henry County is in the middle of a major demographic shift. A surging increase in the African-American population over the last 20 years is changing the conversation about Confederate history.
This conflict came to a head earlier this month when Henry County joined New Orleans and South Carolina in the rekindled national debate over whether public Confederate memorials honor Southern history or are insensitive monuments to slavery and racial oppression.
Over the course of a four-hour meeting on June 6, advocacy groups took turns casting their side of the debate. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, clad in leather vests emblazoned with Confederate emblems, denounced the removal of the flag. Members of the Henry County NAACP, carrying the pan-African and American flags, rejected the SCV’s disapproval.
But while groups battle at the county level, Meeks says the debate over the memorials and flag, have mostly been nonexistent in Henry’s cities and communities.
“We’ve never had any discussion about it,” Meeks said. “We have different groups with different heritages, but there’s never really been a catalyst for conflict.”
Pride and pain
For Meeks, pride in his ancestors does not mean he supports the ideas of the Confederacy.
“It was a lost cause then and it’s a lost cause now,” he said. Meeks also makes a point to note that his ancestors never owned slaves.
Meeks said he takes into consideration how others may view Confederate homages. When Meeks’ family received a federal headstone for his great-great-grandfather Sidney Meeks, a veteran of the Civil War, a local paper wrote an article about it. The article along with some photos are hanging in his home office. He often takes it down when he has guests.
“One of the pictures is the flag of the 13th Georgia regiment. When my wife’s coworker came over, I took it down and put it somewhere else,” he said. “I felt self-conscious that they might be offended by it.”
Meeks takes the same approach to the Confederate flag debate.
“It’s part of what happened. Be ashamed of it or be proud of it, it’s what happened,” he said. “At the same time, we can remember, but we don’t have to shove it in people’s faces.”
Dale Hines, an African-American from McDonough, moved to Henry County from Michigan in 2010. He says while the South has changed over the decades, the flag is still a strong symbol of its racist past.
“I know prejudice is still going on,” Hines said. “But it’s not like it was in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”
However, Hines said he was taken aback when he saw a Confederate flag flapping on the back of a truck a few years ago.
“I took a picture and posted it on Facebook to show it’s not just in deep Georgia, it’s in Henry County, too,” he said.
Other county residents say the monuments go beyond race.
Gathered around a table for a late breakfast in a small family restaurant in McDonough, the three Adams brothers trade stories of growing up in Henry County, and the changes the county has seen since. They paint a picture of a quiet area, when there was only one grocery store and the interstate had not come through town yet.
“They’re obliterating history,” said Donny Adams, a long-time resident of Henry County.
For Donny Adams and his brothers Buddy and Tony, their support of the Confederate artifact was never racial motivated.
“It’s never been about black or white for me,” Buddy Adams said. “It’s about history.”
The brothers know how the South and its white citizens are often stereotyped when it comes to race relations, and stress that they are not racist.
“It makes you wonder where the heck it all comes from,” he said.
A county in transition
Henry County has seen its population nearly double since 2000, with tremendous growth in the African-American community. In 2000, blacks accounted for 14 percent of Henry’s 119,000 residents. In 2016, they accounted for about 39 percent of the population of nearly 222,000.
“Henry County is purple now,” Meeks said. “And with the growing diversity, public opinion changes about what is important.”
Some areas, however, have seen more change than others. In Stockbridge, a city in the northern part of the county, the population has shifted from nearly all white to 56 percent African-American in 2015.
Elton Alexander, a city councilman in Stockbridge, was at the county meeting as vocal opponent of the flag. In his own city, he led an effort to end Stockbridge’s tradition of celebrating Confederate History Month.
“With the diversity in the county now, everyone wants to be respected,” he said. “But the county is still very much split demographically.”
In Hampton, in the southern part of the county, the city is 53 percent white and 40 percent African-American.
While Stockbridge’s city council is all black, Ann Tarpley in Hampton is only one of three African-Americans to ever serve on the Hampton city council, and the first in over a decade.
Meeks said her election in 2016 has changed attendance at council meetings.
“It used to be the same 20 people coming to meetings,” Meeks said. “With the election of Ms. Tarpley, the African-American groups started attending, and that brings new perspectives.”
Meeks said emotion from people on both sides of the issue of the flag and Confederate memorials keep it from being resolved.
“I think it’s getting blown out of proportion, and I don’t think it’s worth losing friends over,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing that has to be talked out and rationalized about. It’s difficult to make a rational decision in the heat of passion.”
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