Confederate memorials removed at Agnes Scott spark deeper discussion
A marker for the Jefferson Davis Highway, seen here in 2017, used to stand at the corner of East College Avenue and South McDonough Street at the edge of the Agnes Scott campus. The marker was removed earlier this year. (Photo: Pete Corson)
For nearly 90 years, the two marble markers stood on the campus of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, passed largely unnoticed each day by students, faculty and staff.
About the size of modest headstones, the markers were weathered, gray and at first glance unremarkable. One lay beneath a tree near the school’s main entrance. The other, along College Avenue, was nearly obscured by a row of hedges that arched on either side.
But after a series of events that began one year ago today in Charlottesville, Va., when a counter-protester was killed at a white nationalists’ rally, those two markers and their fate have sparked a discussion at Agnes Scott. It’s a conversation that’s being held on other campuses in Atlanta and the rest of the South: What to do with Confederate iconography and, more importantly, who gets to contribute to the conversation about its fate?
At Agnes Scott the conversation is not finished.
“After Charlottesville, there was basically a shutdown of communication,” said Karen Cox, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of “Dixie Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.” “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have the conversation. I wish people would sit down not to just talk to each other but to listen to each other.”
The removal of the two Agnes Scott markers began with a class assignment last fall: A scavenger hunt around Atlanta for monuments and markers to the Confederacy.
The assignment came on the heels of the deadly riot in Charlottesville, sparked by the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse.
The Agnes Scott students were assigned to look not only for monuments, but for more discreet representations.
“Charlottesville got people thinking differently,” said Robin Morris, an associate history professor at Agnes Scott. “Monuments stopped being just part of the landscape and people started thinking about meaning.”
One of Morris’s colleagues assigned the scavenger hunt. In her own class, “Practicing Public History,” Morris said she wanted the students to consider the meaning of Confederate monuments, then and now.
The obelisk in Decatur Square is one of the most recognizable memorials in metro Atlanta and it still stands despite efforts to remove it. But the Agnes Scott markers were less obvious, hiding in plain sight. The one near the campus entrance was dedicated on Jan. 19, 1922 in honor of Robert E. Lee’s birthday and its inscription commemorated the Battle of Atlanta.
Both the college’s markers were erected by the Agnes Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a chapter that began in Decatur and still has an active Facebook page. The chapter was named for Robert E. Lee’s youngest daughter.
Back then, the UDC was an organization of women who were adjacent to power; the wives, daughters and sisters of businessmen, politicians and city leaders. These were educated, ambitious women who saw the UDC as a way to wield power and influence.
The UDC’s Georgia division president and the national headquarters of the UDC did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article. In a statement issued last year following the Charlottesville riot, the UDC denounced "racial divisiveness" and called the monuments part of a "shared American history" and advocated keeping them in place.
In a 1922 article about the dedication ceremony at Agnes Scott, The Atlanta Constitution described the UDC’s Decatur marker as “one of a number of similar memorials which the chapter is raising to make historic spots in and about Decatur.”
About 10 years later, the chapter installed another marker, this one at the edge of the campus along what is now College Avenue. It was a granite, hip-height marker inscribed “Jefferson Davis Highway,” part of a UDC project to designate a transatlantic highway named for the former president of the Confederacy.
According to Cox, the UDC’s mission was to commemorate and preserve their version of the South’s “Lost Cause” ideology in which the North was an aggressor on the Southern way of life and slavery had no role in precipitating the Civil War.
“They wanted their children to have the idea of states’ rights and white supremacy so ingrained that when they became adults, they would fight for and enforce those values,” Cox said.
“Who We Are”
When those markers were installed, Agnes Scott was whites-only. By the time Kailah Douglas and her classmates found both markers last fall, the campus had become one of the more liberal and diverse in the state. Douglas—who was then a senior—and her classmates lobbied to have both markers removed.
“It was on our campus, like right at the entrance,” Douglas said. “It didn’t represent our mission and who we are.”
At the same time, students on other Southern campuses were pushing their administrations to reckon with Confederate emblems as well. The literary debate society at the University of Georgia voted to remove a portrait of Lee from its hall. At the time, the society’s president said, “It was time for Robert E. Lee to come down. It’s time for our society to move forward.”
Students and faculty at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill renewed their efforts to take down the statue of “Silent Sam,” which depicts a Confederate soldier. It, too, was paid for in part by the UDC. And a year before, Vanderbilt University paid the UDC $1.2 million to remove the name “Confederate” from a residence hall the organization helped build in the 1930s.
At Agnes Scott, after much campus input that included the president, the board of trustees and even a descendant of the college’s founder, the two markers were removed during alumni weekend. The removal was planned to coincide with a ceremony honoring the first African-American woman to integrate the school, Gay Johnson McDougall who was admitted in 1965. As the markers were being carted off, the school was dedicating its Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion in McDougall’s name.
Not long after, the school received an invitation from the local chapter of the UDC to attend its June meeting and explain why the markers were moved without any input from their chapter, Morris, the Agnes Scott history professor said.
Morris said the meeting was cordial, but the message was clear; the chapter was disappointed it wasn’t offered the chance to weigh in on the fate of emblems it had raised money to install. Though a companion marker remains just two miles from Agnes Scott, the Jefferson Davis marker at the edge of the campus was one of only a handful that still survive as a testament to the UDC’s ambitious, but failed, cross-country project.
Cox said that it was difficult for women of that era to raise money for their projects because having careers outside the home was frowned upon. UDC members had to raise money anyway they could, whether it was lobbying their husbands or businessmen or having bake sales.
“A Seat at the Table”
The question facing not just campuses, but cities like Atlanta and Decatur is: Who gets to be at the table to decide what to do with the relics?
In Atlanta, the city council has formed a subcommittee to deal with an advisory commission’s report on the city’s Confederate symbols, monuments and street names. One recurring suggestion posited nationally, is to leave the monuments in place and erect companion pieces to add context about the racial segregation that followed the war. Some observers say the monuments should be left alone and others say they should be put in museums or banished to warehouses.
“It’s a community decision and all the stakeholders need to have a seat at the table, but at the same time, when you put (the monuments) up, you didn’t ask the black citizens for their input and what they thought,” Cox said.
But the episode at Agnes Scott is not over. When students return at the end of August, a task force of students, faculty and staff will consider what to do with the two granite markers. Morris said a member of the local UDC chapter will be invited to participate. Until consensus is reached, the markers will remain locked away in an undisclosed location on campus.
Rosalind Bentley is an award-winning feature writer focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food, as they are expressed and experienced in Atlanta. She is a two-time James Beard Award finalist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.