Decatur commission has no say in Confederate monument’s fate

The monument called Lost Cause in Decatur Square hadn’t garnered much attention in recent decades. It’s mostly served as a gathering spot or meeting-up place or a challenge for children to climb. Only hard-core history buffs paid it much mind, or attempted reading it’s archaic language, or knew that Union General James Birdseye McPherson deployed his reserve wagons on the site in July 1864.

That all changed with the Aug. 12 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Overnight Civil War-related monuments, occasionally used as symbols by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists, went viral.

In the week following Charlottesville, Sara Patenaude, an historian and PhD candidate at Georgia State University, and Hannah Hill, who co-pastors The Church of Mary Magdalene in Decatur, organized two events on the square and drew up a petition to have the obelisk removed.

On Monday Patenaude asked for the Decatur City Commission’s support for her cause. She said she had 2,069 signatures asking for monument’s removal.

But also on Monday resident Barry Colbaugh presented commissioners a three-day-old petition with 988 signatures asking to protect the monument and to keep it right where it is.

“We aren’t supremacists or anything like that,” he said. “I consider myself a progressive liberal.”

For nearly 90 minutes 20 residents spoke at length, often eloquently and even poetically, about the obelisk residing on the city square.

In the end 14 residents spoke against the monument, six in favor. Only two commissioners offered explicit opinions.

“This doesn’t stand for what Decatur is now,” said Brian Smith.

Fred Boykin added, “I’m skittish about taking down or removing a historic monument.”

No matter which side of the monument they stand, the commissioners’ hands are tied. The monument and surrounding property is owned by DeKalb County.

Further, a 2010 state law prohibits public monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion; provided, however, that appropriate measures for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments or memorials shall not be prohibited.”

Patenaude believes the key lies in the clause following the semicolon, which potentially allows for the monument’s removal to a cemetery or some other less public venue without changing the law.

But Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett suggested that plenty discussion lay ahead. The next steps, she said, include a meeting with DeKalb County commissioners and state legislators in early September. She added there’s also a planned community discussion on the monument and other issues scheduled for Sept. 24.

Chris Billingsley who taught history and civics to several generations of Decatur High students, made clear his position:

“That Confederate monument symbolizes the courage of thousands of Southerners who fought bravely during that conflict,” he said. “I think that in this political climate we are in right now, this is no time to change something that’s more than 100 years old.”

One of Billingsley’s former students is Tony Powers, the third known black commissioner in city history.

“One thing I know for sure, the kind of conversation we’re having tonight, we didn’t have in 1908,” ” Powers said. “Chances are I wouldn’t have been invited anyway. But whatever happens, we are a community and we will decide together what will happen with that monument. That’s the only way we can truly change.”