DeKalb to mark its own history after Confederate monument removal

Removing a Confederate monument from downtown Decatur is just the first step in DeKalb County reckoning with its history, government CEO Michael Thurmond said Friday.

The obelisk outside the Historic DeKalb Courthouse, erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908, was dismantled Thursday night. A crowd of several hundred people gathered to watch it lifted off its pedestal with a crane. DeKalb County Judge Clarence Seeliger had ordered it removed last week, declaring it a public nuisance for repeatedly attracting vandalism and protest.

READ | The Confederate monument in Decatur comes down

In a Friday press conference, Thurmond announced the county’s intent to add 25 new historical markers to create a “more inclusive history.” The county has 88 markers currently, and 80 are related to either the Civil War or World War II, Thurmond said. Some of the new markers will recognize black history, including the communities of Flat Rock near Lithonia and Shermantown near Stone Mountain, both settled and occupied by former slaves in the 1800s.

Thurmond has also commissioned two historians to write an official history of DeKalb for its 2022 bicentennial. That history will include the Native Americans who were forced out of DeKalb by federal removal programs in the 19th century, as well as the county’s role in the Confederacy and Civil War.

“We need an inclusive history,” Thurmond said. “We won’t always like what we read, but the important thing is that it will be based on fact.”

The monument removed Thursday night is still part of DeKalb’s history, but should be placed in a “more appropriate” location instead of a downtown square, Thurmond said. It’s currently in storage while its next home is determined.

He thanked the activists who have for years asked the county to remove the monument and said the county will work with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who opposed the monument’s removal, and other “heritage groups” to determine where the monument should go.

“We declare that the Decatur Square is free of a monument that represented intolerance and bigotry and the enslavement of generations of people,” Thurmond said. “But as we celebrate, I encourage my fellow DeKalb County brothers, do not forget, do not overlook the fact that if we are to continue to progress, it must be on bridges of cooperation. We must open the lines of communication with those who may disagree with us, and we must rededicate ourselves to working together to fulfill the commitment.”

The Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had planned to file a motion intended to stop the monument’s removal. Spokesman Martin O’Toole told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday morning that his group still plans to pursue legal action in the case.

Thurmond would not comment specifically about the case, but said the county would fight any attempt to restore the monument to its spot on the Decatur Square.

The Thursday night removal wasn’t announced beforehand, and the scene indicated the county hoped it would go quietly; police officers blocked off some parking adjacent to the Decatur Square around 9 p.m. and a small construction crew with equipment including a crane arrived around 10. There were no notices or signs, and little caution tape or other markers that would draw significant attention. But passersby sensed something was going on, and soon word spread the monument was coming down. A crowd of a few dozen around 10 p.m. swelled to a few hundred by the time the obelisk was lifted off its pedestal at 11:30 p.m.

The removal was a “victory” for Mawuli Davis and other members of Beacon Hill Black Voices for Human Rights, a local activist group that has pushed for the monument to be taken down for years. Thurmond thanked Davis for pushing him and other local officials on the issue and never letting up.

“Some people say that this is only a symbolic victory, but it is much more than that. It’s a reckoning with history,” Davis said. “If we are going to address the things that are happening to our young people today, it starts with us correcting history and making it clear that what stood here does not represent all of us. We know that it was erected to send a message to our ancestors that their black lives didn’t matter. But today, we’re able to say to our ancestors and to our children’s children that their black lives matter.”

Staff writer Tyler Estep contributed to this story.