Atlanta’s Confederate icons: Debating their fate

City advisory committee begins holding meetings

How many Confederate monuments, memorials and streets named after Confederate leaders are in the city of Atlanta?

That's one of the questions a city advisory committee is trying to answer as it grapples with the contentious issue of what to do with Confederate iconography on city-owned property. The 11-member committee of business and arts leaders, historians, authors and preservationists heard an accounting of rebel emblems and images around the city from the director of the Atlanta Urban Design Commission on Wednesday night.

PHOTOS: Confederate memorials in metro Atlanta

VIDEO: Andrew Young calls anti-Confederate-statue push a mistake

The committee, which was appointed in part by Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council, listened in council chambers as Doug Young, executive director of the urban design commission, went through a PowerPoint presentation of images. There were the familiar monuments, such as the obelisk in Oakland Cemetery honoring Confederate war dead and the Peace Monument in Piedmont Park, a sculpture meant to represent the reunification of the Union at war's end.

But there were less familiar monuments that thousands of Atlantans pass every day without recognizing. There’s a stone monument at Peachtree Battle near Peachtree Road honoring reconciliation between the North and South and a portrait at City Hall of Atlanta’s 16th mayor, James M. Calhoun, a war militia member who surrendered the city to Union forces.

Then there are numerous streets named for Rebel leaders, including Lee Street and Forrest Street.

The design commission has identified at least 13 streets and half a dozen monuments, plaques and portraits across the city so far.

All represent the nation’s history, but whether they deserve to remain standing on public land or retain their war-era names is the question the committee is trying to help the city answer by Nov. 20. That’s the deadline mandated by a City Council resolution as part of an initiative started by Reed. Three committee members said, however, that they wanted to see the deadline extended to make room for more public comment and study.

The committee was formed after a series of racially charged killings and incidents that began with the massacre of nine African-American worshippers in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist who draped himself with the Confederate battle flag. Then earlier this year, there was the case of Heather Heyer. Heyer was a young white woman protesting against white nationalists and supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., when she was killed after a white supremacist drove a car into the protesters.

When he called for the committee, Reed cited Heyer's death as a catalyst for re-examining Confederate iconography in Atlanta. Cities across the South from New Orleans to Baltimore are tackling the volatile issue of what to do with the divisive monuments at a time when racial tensions are high. The city's urban design commission has contacted some of those cities, and even universities in the North such as Yale, to examine how they dealt with the removal of monuments and the attendant debate.

About 25 members of the public attended Wednesday's meeting, some saying the street names should be changed and monuments brought down because they represented white supremacy.

“The Civil War was a traitorous insurrection against the United States,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta NAACP. “What country celebrates that? Slavery was about oppression. These monuments and street names and school names have continued the degradation of those non-white citizens.”

But others, such as Damani Makonnen of Johns Creek, said they should remain as symbols of the nation's ugly racial history.

“I’m against hiding history,” Makonnen said. “By taking them away and putting them in a closet, you’re hiding what happened.”

By Friday the PowerPoint presentation should be available on the city’s website, Young said. The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 8, and is open to the public.

The committee is a mix of appointees named by Reed and the City Council last month. Reed appointed six and the council five. Among them is Sonji Jacobs, senior director of corporate affairs at Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Jacobs was previously the director of communications for Mayor Reed and, prior to that, a reporter for The AJC.

The committee members are:

  • Sonji Jacobs, senior director of corporate affairs at Cox Enterprises;
  • Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of Atlanta History Center;Derreck Kayongo, CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights;
  • Dan Moore, founder of APEX Museum;
  • Shelley Rose, senior associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's southeast region;
  • Larry Gallerstedt, CEO of Cousins Properties and trustee of Robert Woodruff Foundation;
  • Douglas Blackmon, senior fellow and director of public programs at the University of Virginia's Miller Center
  • Nina Gentry, owner of Gentry Planning Services;
  • Regina Brewer, preservation consultant;
  • Martha Porter Hall, community advocate;
  • Brenda Muhammad, executive director of Atlanta Victim Assistance.