Atlanta would be among the first Southern cities to alter how such monuments are displayed without removing them – potentially avoiding the heated and sometimes violent confrontations over Confederate memorials elsewhere, most dramatically in Charlottesville, Va. last year.
“I don’t ever want to erase history,” said Atlanta City Council Member Natalyn Archibong, part of a city panel guiding the effort. “We can own that Civil War to Civil Rights moniker.”
Other cities and states, including Richmond and North Carolina, have proposed similar markers as a compromise but efforts have stalled. New Orleans and Baltimore are among cities that have removed Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charlottesville protest and 2015 Charleston, S.C. church massacre.
Atlanta’s plan is borne at least partly out of necessity. Under Georgia law, cities aren’t allowed to remove or alter Confederate monuments. The law doesn’t mention street names.
The marker initiative highlights growing momentum to address contentious Confederate iconography one year after former Mayor Kasim Reed signed off on a 40-page report written by an 11-member, blue-ribbon panel.
The City Council in late September unanimously approved one of the panel's boldest recommendations: Rename Confederate Avenue. Signs with the new name, United Avenue, are poised for installation in Grant Park and Ormewood Park next month. The renaming effort was initially led by those neighborhoods and their City Council Member, Carla Smith. City officials are looking at about two dozen other streets that might have been named for Confederate leaders.
“Different things to different people”
The decision to rename Confederate Avenue sparked little outcry after supporters of the move far outnumbered opponents at public hearings. Whether that will be the case with the markers is unclear.
If the plan moves forward, there could be public hearings, though it’s uncertain.
Much else is still up in the air, including the size and positioning of the markers, although they will be smaller than the monuments. Language for two of the markers is still being ironed out, with representatives from The Atlanta History Center and Historic Oakland Cemetery developing drafts.
Striking the right balance is especially important at Oakland Cemetery, where the “Confederate Obelisk’’ and “Lion of Atlanta” memorials are among Atlanta’s most iconic 19th-century symbols in a city with a history of moving out the old for the new.
“There are 6,900 Confederate soldiers buried here,” said David Moore, co-executive director of Historic Oakland Foundation of Oakland Cemetery. “We want to say these things have different meanings. Depending on the era and time, it can mean different things to different people.”
The final language needs to be approved by the cemetery’s history committee. Moore said he expects it to be ironed out before Christmas.
The roughly 65-foot-high obelisk would remain dedicated to “our Confederate dead” and no existing plaques or wording would be altered. New markers would be near but not attached to the statuary.
Draft wording for the new marker would acknowledge, “Funeral monuments like the Confederate Obelisk became communal sites for grieving families to mourn those lost and buried far from home.’’ At the same time, it would state in part that “as former Confederate states emerged from Reconstruction, messages of mourning and grief gave way to statements of defiant political resistance.’’
An early draft for the “Lion of Atlanta,” which honors the 3,000 unknown Confederate dead resting in the cemetery, explains the role of white Southern women’s organizations that gave dignified burials to fallen soldiers. The marker also would point out the cemetery was segregated until the early 1960s, a reflection of “how prejudice and discrimination in daily life were maintained in death.”
Piedmont Park’s “Peace Monument” sparks strife
Just inside the 14th Street entrance of Piedmont Park is the “Peace Monument,” officially named “Cease Firing—Peace is Proclaimed.” It has stood in the park since 1911 and depicts an angel with an olive branch in one hand looking over a soldier seated below. It commemorates an effort by the “Gate City Guard”—which took its moniker after an old Atlanta nickname—to unite the North and South after the Civil War. “To heal the Nation’s wounds in a peaceful and prosperous reunion of the states,” the inscription reads in part.
The statue became a target in 2017 after a white nationalists’ rally in Charlottesville, where “Unite the Right” demonstrators protested the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. One of the demonstrators is accused of running over counter-protester Heather Heyer with his car, killing her. Atlantans angered by the rally and Heyer’s death defaced the Peace Monument with red spray paint.
Some observers said it was ironic that rage would be directed at a monument dedicated to peace. That is just one interpretation of the statue's meaning, say historians involved in the marker effort. They say what's missing with that and other Confederate monuments is broader context of the social and political climate when they were erected.
“I want people to read the reader rails and understand that it’s fraught,” said Sheffield Hale, president of the Atlanta History Center, the city’s largest repository of Civil War artifacts. “Why does the Peace Monument have issues? You have to read it to understand. So, don’t leave it uncontested. Contextualize it.”
Hale was co-chair of the Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy, the blue-ribbon panel, appointed by Reed and the City Council, that came up with the initial report the city is now attempting to implement.
Under the current proposal, the Peace Monument would be accompanied by four markers, each about three or four feet high, and display a mix of text and historical photographs. One of the markers would acknowledge the post-war reconciliation effort but state in part that it ignored “difficult issues such as slavery as the cause of the Civil War and ongoing violent racism.”
The “appealing idea’’ of reconciliation, the marker would add, “provided a comforting image of brave white soldiers on both sides doing their patriotic duty as Americans” and “insisted on moral equivalency in the founding principles of the United States and the Confederacy while also promoting white reconciliation within the social order established by segregation.”
The Piedmont Park Conservancy has given its initial approval for the language on the markers.
A fourth Confederate monument at the intersection of Peachtree Road and Peachtree Battle in Buckhead, erected in 1935, commemorates the 1864 Battle of Peachtree Creek and reconciliation efforts. It would be accompanied by a marker that references the idea of North and South reconciliation but addresses the disenfranchisement of African-Americans during Reconstruction.
Council Member Smith, who is heading a three-member committee including council members Natalyn Archibong and Michael Julian Bond, could not provide an exact cost of the markers. Moore, of the cemetery foundation, said such panels usually cost less than $1,000 each. The Atlanta History Center is working on mock-ups for each of the sites.
City officials haven’t decided whether to draft a marker to accompany a monument to Confederate Gen. William H.T. Walker on Glenwood Avenue in East Atlanta. Dedicated in 1902, it marks the spot where he was killed by the Union Army in 1864. A monument to Union Gen. James B. McPherson, who died the same day in the Battle of Atlanta, stands nearby.
Observers expect little traction on another recommendation by the since-disbanded blue-ribbon commission: Lobbying state lawmakers to change the law prohibiting the removal of Confederate monuments.
“Atlanta is a unique place,” said Council Member Bond. “It has long grappled with the dichotomy of dealing with both sides of Southern culture.”