- By Rosalind Bentley The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
When Jeremy Gray and his wife were looking to purchase a new house a few years ago, they got out-bid every time they found one that seemed right.
Then they saw a lovely home for sale in Grant Park. The house was a traditional four-square with plenty of charm and an inviting yard. The only issue was the name of the street: Confederate Avenue.
“We didn’t like the name, but it was a tight market and we like this house,” Gray said.
So they bought the house, in the process joining other Atlanta residents who are grappling with representations of Confederate symbols in the city’s public spaces.
RELATED MAP: Atlanta streets named for the Confederacy
Amid all the recent talk in Georgia and other Southern cities about how to handle Rebel imagery, Atlanta was supposed to be well on its way to developing a plan for dealing with its own. But despite promises and high expectations, little has been done.
Gray and his neighbors watched last year as then-Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council formed an 11-member panel to figure out how the city should reckon with numerous streets and monuments honoring the Confederacy. The panel produced a 40-page report outlining immediate and long-term steps the city could take to address the contentious landmarks, from a familiar statue in Piedmont Park to street names such as the Gray’s.
The City Council was expected to swiftly consider some of the committee’s proposals. Instead, nine months after the report was submitted to the council, neither the council nor the new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, appears to have done anything to realize the committee’s recommendations.
Tired of waiting and disappointed by the inaction, some residents such as Gray and his Confederate Avenue neighbor Atiba Mbiwan wonder whether it will take a grass-roots effort to address an issue some cities have already tackled but that Atlanta has essentially evaded.
“That’s always the fear when elected officials create a study commission, that they will go through the motions, produce a report, but then it gets put on a shelf and just sits there,” Mbiwan said.
It’s a fear that some members of the advisory committee share as well.
“If in the end, that report and that process just vanishes because it’s too uncomfortable for some people, then that will mean the whole process was window dressing, that it was never a serious effort, if it’s going to just disappear into silence now,” said Doug Blackmon, a committee member, Grant Park resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
‘Status Quo Not an Option’
Since the massacre of nine African-American worshippers in Charleston, S.C., by white supremacist Dylann Roof, Southern cities and states have engaged the question of what to do with their Confederate symbols.
In the aftermath of the murders, at least 100 cities have removed their Confederate monuments, three have relocated them to museums or other private locations, and a handful of schools no longer carry the moniker of a Confederate leader and have been renamed, said Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum and co-chair of Richmond’s effort to address its Rebel iconography.
RELATED GALLERY: Confederate memorials in metro Atlanta
Even as the outrage over the fate of Rebel memorials ebbs and flows, it’s important to figure out how to deal with the images before there’s a crisis, Coleman said.
“There’s no separating images of the Confederacy from white nationalism,” Coleman said. “Whether that was the intent or not, that is what has happened. So, it’s going to continually be in our faces. It’s not going away.”
The killing of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester at the “Unite the Right” white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer prompted cities, including Atlanta, to act. Reed cited Heyer’s death when he asked the City Council last summer to pass legislation to form a committee, like the one in Richmond, charged with a plan to address Confederate symbols on public land. Reed appointed six members, and the council appointed five.
In a statement Reed told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I have always advocated for a thoughtful approach to this issue and knew that the implementation of the recommendations in the report would have to be continued by a future Administration and the Atlanta City Council. I continue to be appreciative of the work of the Confederate Monuments Advisory Committee members and am hopeful that their recommendations will be considered by the Bottoms Administration.”
The committee met for about six weeks in October and November, holding public meetings. Just before Thanksgiving, the Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy submitted the 40-page document recommending a path forward. Proposed steps included the immediate renaming of Confederate Avenue and the removal of the “Peace Monument” in Piedmont Park.
Reed asked the City Council to figure out how to implement some of the measures in the final days of his administration. He was going to give input as well. Other parts of the report would be tackled later.
It never happened.
Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, was the co-chair of the committee. He knew developing a strategy in the council’s 70-day time frame would be challenging. The goal was to finish before Reed left office and new council members were sworn in.
The panel met the deadline. Even with no movement on their proposal, Hale said he doesn’t view their work as futile and is hopeful it will be considered at some point. He wondered, however, when that would be.
“I think it was good work, but this (current) mayor and this council has not taken it up,” Hale said. “They’ve been trying to formulate their new priorities, and I don’t know where this falls on their list, and I wouldn’t presume to tell them where it should be placed. But we do say the status quo is not an option.”
Meanwhile, rhetoric around the future of Confederate names and monuments has heated up, particularly in Georgia.
In Savannah, after asking the Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal to consider its request to rename the Talmadge Bridge, the port city put up signs last month that refer to the span as the “Savannah Bridge.” While the name change is not official, the city decided to take matters into its own hands after the state did not act. The late Eugene Talmadge, a Georgia governor, was a staunch segregationist.
Both Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, the Republican gubernatorial candidates facing a runoff on Tuesday, have said they want to preserve the largest public representation of Confederate history: the carving on Stone Mountain. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor, has said in the past that the carving should be removed. This year she said she supported “contextualizing the post-Reconstruction era through an understanding of history.”
‘It’s People’s Mindset’
A 2001 law gives the state Legislature authority over public Confederate monuments and statuary, regardless of whether they’re owned by counties or cities. One of the committee’s recommendations was to add contextual signage to some exiting monuments, including those in Oakland Cemetery. The signage would explain the impact and legacy of racist ideology that was fostered during the Civil War years and that spread in its aftermath.
It was the committee’s proposal for the immediate renaming of Confederate Avenue and East Confederate Avenue that heartened residents such as Mbiwan and Gray. Immediately after the Charleston killings, they and a small contingent of Grant Park neighbors began collecting signatures to change the streets’ names. An Atlanta ordinance stipulates 75 percent of property owners on a street must agree to a name change. The state has no authority over street renaming.
RELATED GALLERY: The Lion Of The Confederacy
Tiffany Friesen also collected signatures. Between Confederate and East Confederate avenues there are 160 properties, Friesen said. There was talk of possible replacement names for the streets. But the group’s effort lost momentum. Then came Charlottesville. Now, the petition is recirculating and more neighbors have joined the effort. They’ve held meetings this summer, Friesen said. She lives on Confederate Avenue with her husband, Mbiwan.
“I’m not trying to erase words like ‘Confederate,’ but I do think it’s important to tell the other side of the story,” Friesen said. “This is a good time in our history in Atlanta to pause and say, ‘This is a time for balance in our storytelling.’”
But there are some longtime neighbors who don’t think the name should change. Susan Walens has lived in Grant Park for 34 years, near, but not on, Confederate Avenue.
“I absolutely hate and despise the idea” of renaming any street associated with the Confederacy, Walens said. “I think it’s the most ludicrous thing they could’ve come up with to say, ‘Rename the street.’ It’s history — good, bad or indifferent. I don’t understand why a word has so much power. It really doesn’t. It’s people’s mindset.”
Walens said that not only would renaming the street be an attempt to erase part of history, it would also become an inconvenience for property owners. They would be forced to change driver’s licenses, insurance records and other legal documents, she said.
Her neighbors are persisting anyway. Gray said he appreciates that there’s a new administration in City Hall and that nearly half the City Council members are new. Those facts don’t mitigate his disappointment, though, that the advisory committee’s report hasn’t been acted on by the council or Mayor Bottoms.
“I was hopeful that with the stroke of a pen, (Reed) could change the name,” Gray said. “When he didn’t, I thought maybe he’s teeing off a softball for her, so she could have this big action with fanfare at the start of her term. But then that didn’t happen.”
‘We Move Forward’
Only three of the returning council members from last year’s election responded to the AJC’s request for comment about the current status of the report. Two, including Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Michael Julian Bond, said they had not read it. The other, Councilwoman Carla Smith, who has been talking with her Grant Park constituents who are collecting signatures, said the advisory committee created an excellent report. “And I think it’s going to take a minute to implement that.”
Bottoms also did not respond to requests for comment placed with her spokesperson.
Reed had asked the council to form a three-member committee to draft street name and monuments legislation for the full council to consider. That never happened either. Bond said recently he’d be willing to serve on such a committee. He said he is opposed to removing monuments. Instead, he said, he would like to see “a frank and honest conversation about what happened” after the war, and for contextual signage to be considered.
That sounds like more of the same to Mbiwan.
“We went through winter, spring, and no action was taken by the city,” Mbiwan said. “We’ve given them time to be proactive. We’ve been respectful and patient. Now, we move forward.”