The city of Decatur removed a statue of Thomas Jefferson from Decatur Square almost immediately after county crews took down an obelisk memorializing the Confederacy less than 500 feet away.
The bronze Jefferson sculpture, depicting the third president working on the Declaration of Independence, was originally given to the city by a private owner in honor of U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, who died in 2000.
“It as basically … on loan from a private individual that reached out to the city and asked for it to be removed,” Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said, adding that the person remained anonymous. “They asked that it be removed so that it would not be damaged.”
Amid a national reckoning on race and the history of racism, Jefferson's legacy — specifically his racist beliefs and support of slavery — has attracted renewed scrutiny. Jefferson owned over 600 enslaved people. Historians also say he had six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman at Monticello.
“To my knowledge there’s no intent on the part of the donor to bring it back,” Garrett said of the statue, adding that Jefferson was a complicated figure, but “there are reasons for its removal right now.”
The bust was located on a bench outside the Historic DeKalb Courthouse facing Ponce de Leon Avenue, allowing residents and visitors to sit and take pictures with the Founding Father. It was made by famed sculptor George Lundeen, according to the city's website.
On the other side of the courthouse, the controversial obelisk memorializing the “Lost Cause” Confederate movement was taken down by DeKalb County late Thursday night after a judge ruled it was a public nuisance and ordered its relocation. Local officials and activists had been pushing for its removal for years.
Garrett said the Jefferson statue was also "gone by Friday morning." Protests against racism have reignited discussions about whether historical American figures should be memorialized with grand, public statues. New York City Council members have called for a Thomas Jefferson statue to be removed from City Hall, according to NBC New York. New York City recently said a statue of Theodore Roosevelt flanked by a Native American man and African man would be removed. Protesters in Portland, Oregon set fire to a statue of George Washington before pulling it to the ground, CNN reported.
Locally, debates continue over statues and monuments to the Confederacy. More than 40 descendants of former Gov. John B. Gordon sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp over the weekend asking that the statue of Gordon, sitting in full Confederate regalia, be removed from the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. Aside from being a Confederate general, Gordon is generally acknowledged as being a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.
“I think there are just a lot of conversations that we need to have right now,” Garrett said.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com