Lake Lanier, Buford Dam may be renamed; local leaders are already objecting

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

WASHINGTON — Lake Lanier, the reservoir that has become an epicenter for tourism and recreation just outside of metro Atlanta, is so enshrined in the local economy that dozens of businesses and even schools now bear the Lanier name, also.

Its namesake is Georgia native and poet Sidney Lanier, who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. At the lake’s edge is Buford Dam, which was named for the city where the facility was built. That city is named after Algernon Buford, best known as the president of the Richmond and Danville Railroad but who also served six months in the Confederate Army.

Now there is a chance Lake Lanier and Buford Dam could be renamed because of those Confederate ties, although there is confusion both at the local and the federal level over whether that will happen and how soon.

ExploreUPDATE: Army Corps of Engineers pauses talks on renaming Lake Lanier, Buford Dam

The lawmaker who represents the area in Congress said he is against changing the names. Another member of the U.S. House who served on the federal Naming Commission that came up with new designations for military facilities named after Confederates said Lake Lanier, Buford Dam and similar sites were not intended to be part of those conversations. Community stakeholders, including the businesses and organizations that have sprouted up around the lake, are sounding the alarm that any changes could be confusing and costly.

Still, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built and operates the sites, is proceeding toward a potential name change, “in accordance with Department of Defense guidance to implement the Naming Commission’s recommendations to remove names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor the Confederate States of America,” it said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The statement says that new names for Lake Lanier and Buford Dam are “possible” and that the corps is “committed to public and stakeholder engagement throughout the process.” No timeline has been established, but staff, local elected officials and community organizations have been notified that discussions are underway.

Clyde Morris is vice president of the Lake Lanier Association, a nonprofit focused on preserving the lake, and among those speaking out against a name change that he was told is already in motion. He believes it’s a step too far because both namesakes, Lanier and Buford, had other claims to fame beyond their stints as Confederate soldiers.

“I don’t want you to think that we’re being insensitive to the awakening, if you will, of people’s sensitivities to these things; we’re not,” he said. “But there comes a point at which you’re reaching too far. And neither Sidney Lanier’s poem — beautiful poem — about the Chattahoochee nor the fact that a dam was named after the nearest town should be offensive to anybody.”

Morris also pointed out the potential branding crisis across the region if Lake Lanier is no longer Lake Lanier.

“Think about all of the schools, streets, businesses, subdivisions,” he said. “Countless things and organizations that have adopted the name Lanier since the 1950s when the name was first settled on. You’re talking 65 years.”

Part three of the Naming Commission’s final report deals with Defense Department assets such as Lake Lanier and Buford Dam. The panel wrote that it believes these sites “are within its remit for consideration, but not within its purview to provide a naming recommendation.” In other words, the commission seemed to suggest that it believes these names could change based on their connection to men who served as Confederate soldiers but only with congressional approval.

And since the law passed by Congress requires all renaming to be implemented by the end of 2023, the Defense Department is moving forward with engaging local leaders on new names for Lake Lanier and Buford Dam.

Not everyone agrees the conversation is needed.

“If the name gets changed, that will be up to Congress,” said U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Athens, who represents the area that includes the sprawling reservoir. “And I have yet to hear from anyone in the district that thinks it’s a good idea. In fact, everyone I have spoken to thinks it’s a terrible idea.”

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, was a member of the eight-person commission whose recommendations included new names for several military bases, including two in Georgia that carry the names of former Confederates: Fort Gordon near Augusta and Fort Benning outside of Columbus.

While groups like the NAACP had long called for removing Confederate symbols and monuments, it was the summer of racial reckoning in 2020 that brought the conversation to the forefront in Washington. Led by Democrats, Congress in 2020 approved a sweeping defense policy package that among other things required the renaming of military installations named after Confederates. President Donald Trump vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode him in early 2021.

For 18 months, the Naming Commission studied the issue. In August 2022, it issued a report that included recommendations for new names for Forts Gordon and Benning.

Fort Gordon will be renamed Fort Eisenhower after Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former president and five-star general. The base is currently named after John Gordon, who commanded half of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Fort Benning is named after Henry Benning, a Confederate general. It will be renamed Fort Moore after Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and his wife, Julia Moore. Both are longtime supporters of military families, and the couple is buried on base.

Scott is no stranger to these issues. While serving in the Georgia General Assembly, he was an original co-sponsor of legislation to change the state flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem. And he signed off on the renaming of the military bases that carry the names of former Confederate leaders.

But Scott was both taken by surprise and dismayed to hear that sites such as Lake Lanier are now up for discussion.

“As someone who was on the commission, who was under the impression that the (Defense Department) was accepting the recommendations of the commission, I’m shocked at what they have said they intend to do with this,” he said.

His office pointed to a January 2022 letter from Naming Commission Chairwoman Michelle Howard, a retired Navy admiral, to Rep. Mike Rogers, who at the time was the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and is now its chairman. After hearing concerns from Rogers and his staff and conducting more research, Howard writes that Lake Lanier and Buford Dam are among four Defense Department assets that are largely managed by states and therefore exempt from the panel’s renaming discussions.

“It is the belief of the Commission that Congress intended that the Commission deal with assets completely within DoD control,” Howard wrote. “As such, the Commission does not intend to bring the identified civil works assets into the renaming process.”

Scott said he plans to follow up with the corps, which falls under the Department of Defense, to find out who gave the directive to begin the renaming conversations that now have a community up in arms.

“I personally believe it should be off the table,” Scott said. “I think that Congress adopted legislation, the commission was created, the commission worked for two years to recommend changes to the names of installations, to the names of buildings, to the names of roads. The commission did its job, and now for the Army to go back and disregard the fact that the commission did discuss this and did not recommend changes to these names is disappointing to me.”