Macon wrestles with history in dispute over Confederate statues

Former mayor Jack Ellis speaks to the media out front of the Confederate statue June 12, 2020, at the corner of Second St. and Cotton Ave. in Macon, to ask the city to move the state to Rose Hill Cemetery. (Jason Vorhees / The Telegraph)
Former mayor Jack Ellis speaks to the media out front of the Confederate statue June 12, 2020, at the corner of Second St. and Cotton Ave. in Macon, to ask the city to move the state to Rose Hill Cemetery. (Jason Vorhees / The Telegraph)

Credit: jvorhees@macon.com

Credit: jvorhees@macon.com

This past summer, the Macon-Bibb County Commission narrowly passed a resolution to move two Confederate statues from different downtown locations to a park outside a historic cemetery.

Ostensibly, the relocations would allow for expansion of the green space at the intersection of Cotton Avenue and Second Street, a new roundabout at the intersection of Poplar and First streets, and improvements to Rosa Parks Square across from the government center.

But that’s not all supporters of the resolution had in mind.

Relocating the statues from their prominent perches also would remove sources of racial divisiveness in the community, some argued. Where some saw heritage, others saw symbols of oppression, then-Mayor Robert Reichert said before the vote.

The commission approved the resolution 5-4. But that vote, taken in July, did not resolve the issue. In February, a hearing is scheduled in a lawsuit filed against Macon-Bibb County by Martin Bell, the state commander of the Military Order of the Stars and Bars Georgia Society.

In the suit, Bell argues that “the proposed moving of the monuments is a racially motivated action designed for political purposes to placate the mob mentalities current in American society.”

Meanwhile, like in many cities, residents are split on how they think Macon should recognize its Confederate history.

“Some people do want to preserve, and they have a right to, but everything has a proper place,” said Harold Young, the interim executive director of the Tubman Museum, which focuses on Black art, history and culture.

While Young does not want to see the statues “destroyed or hidden away,” he believes they should not be prominently displayed in the downtown area.

Whether it’s a museum, cemetery or park, he said, he just wants the monuments — one of a Confederate soldier and the other a tribute to women of the Confederacy ― off the streets.

The vote to relocate the statue came just weeks after protests over racial injustice erupted in Macon and around the nation following the May death of George Floyd while being restrained by a Minneapolis police officer.

Macon, GA, 06/19/2020:
People paint a #BlockTheHate mural that was constructed around the Confederate monument at the corner of Cotton Avenue and Second Street on Friday. The mural was created to block the statue from being defaced while also promoting a positive message of love and unity until the statue can be removed. (JENNA EASON / THE TELEGRAPH)
Macon, GA, 06/19/2020: People paint a #BlockTheHate mural that was constructed around the Confederate monument at the corner of Cotton Avenue and Second Street on Friday. The mural was created to block the statue from being defaced while also promoting a positive message of love and unity until the statue can be removed. (JENNA EASON / THE TELEGRAPH)

Credit: jeason@macon.com

Credit: jeason@macon.com

In a “Replace the Hate” rally, protesters pushed for swapping out the soldier statue at Cotton Avenue and Second Street with a symbol of the city’s history that could be celebrated by all residents.

The commissioners who voted against the relocation say there are better ways to use taxpayer money. The proposed park improvements and roundabout are really just a ruse to get rid of the statues and come at a time when it’s difficult to hold public hearings on the matter because of the pandemic, they say.

Prior to the board’s vote this summer, 45 people sent comments to commissioners, most of them in favor of making the road and park improvements and moving the monuments.

However, Commissioner Valerie Wynn argued that more Macon residents should be able to weigh in.

“Once you set a precedent for removing monuments, there’s no ending to it,” said Walker Chandler, who is representing Bell, as well as a Newton County resident who filed a similar suit concerning a Confederate statue at risk of removal there.

It isn’t the first time that Confederate monuments in Macon have come under fire. In 2017, after the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., a handful of Maconites, including former mayor C. Jack Ellis, gathered at the soldier statue to lobby for its relocation.

Since the end of his term in 2007, Ellis, the city’s first Black mayor, has repeatedly called for the removal of the statues.

While he didn’t try to get that done while he was in office, Ellis said he’s dedicated to the effort now.

“I can only quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who stated, ‘Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come,’” Ellis said in an email.

The same Macon-Bibb commissioners who support moving the statues also voted to rename the Macon City Auditorium after Ellis, citing his contributions to the community. But Reichert vetoed the measure, saying, unless there are exceptional circumstances, county policy prohibits the renaming of a facility or street for a living person. Lester Miller, the newly sworn-in mayor, has suggested that Macon music legend Otis Redding might be a better choice.

“For whatever reason, our community has struggled with naming places,” said Ethiel Garlington, executive director of the Historic Macon Foundation. “The Macon Auditorium is just a recent example of that.”

Garlington said the Historic Macon Foundation has not taken a public stance on the renaming or the relocation of the Confederate monuments. But he said the group is working to acknowledge underrepresented histories.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas and Macon-Bibb County cemetery specialist Marvia Mitchell watch Mayor Robert Reichert and Elyse Butler of the Georgia Historical Society pull the cover off a brand new marker at the site of Oak Ridge Cemetery Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Beau Cabell / The Telegraph
Commissioner Elaine Lucas and Macon-Bibb County cemetery specialist Marvia Mitchell watch Mayor Robert Reichert and Elyse Butler of the Georgia Historical Society pull the cover off a brand new marker at the site of Oak Ridge Cemetery Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. Beau Cabell / The Telegraph

As one example, he pointed to a 2017 project to put up a historic marker at the local Oak Ridge Cemetery — designated by the Macon City Council in 1851 as a burial site for African Americans.

“We’re a majority-minority community, and our organization has not always been representative of the entire community,” Garlington said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to better reflect our community.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Macon’s Confederate monuments

Soldier at the corner of Cotton Avenue and Second Street

Unveiled October 1879. Moved to current location: April 1956.

Inscription: “With pride in their patriotism, with love for their memory, this silent stone is raised in perpetual witness of our gratitude. Erected A.D. 1878 by the Ladies Memorial Association of Macon in memory of the men of Bibb County and all who gave their lives in the South to establish the independence of Confederate States.”

“Women Of The South” monument, Poplar Street near First Street.

Unveiled in June 1911. Moved to current location in 1935.

Inscription: “Erected to the memory of the women of the South by their husbands, fathers, sons and daughters.”

Pro / con

In favor of relocation: “Some people do want to preserve, and they have a right to, but everything has a proper place,” said Harold Young, the interim executive director of the Tubman Museum.

Against relocation: “The proposed moving of the monuments is a racially motivated action designed for political purposes to placate the mob mentalities current in American society,” lawsuit aimed at stopping statues’ relocation.

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