Not every fight over Confederate monuments ends with a statue coming down
This story is part of The Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to critically examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.
It's hard for Hewitt Sawyers to comfortably walk on the perfectly manicured Public Square in downtown Franklin.
But his feelings have nothing to do with the fresh cut grass or brightly colored flowers planted in the center.
Main Street — for all its original restaurants, small boutiques and historic buildings — has one item at its center that looms above it all: A Confederate monument.
Nicknamed Chip, the monument serves as a remembrance to the Confederate soldiers who died in Franklin during one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War's western theater.
"In legend and lay, our heroes in gray shall ever live over again for us," part of the inscription reads on the stony statue, surrounded by Union cannons.
Sawyers wanted to change that feeling of unease as a Black pastor who calls the city home. He wants to be able to walk in the town's center, just like everyone else.
"I feel the pain that is going with everyone that is doing the marching and camping out," he said. "I feel the pain. Somehow, some way, people are putting all kinds of tags on what people are doing and not understanding the pain people are going through with the systematic racism that people have endured over long periods of time."
As of October, the square is a different place, with five placards discussing African-American history. One sits underneath the monument, discussing how that very spot was a location to sell Black people into slavery in Tennessee.
By the Juneteenth 2021 celebration, a new U.S. Colored Troops statue will stand 7 feet tall in front of the Williamson County Historic Courthouse. Underneath a tree-lined sidewalk, the new addition will stare at its Confederate counterpart.
"There’s another way of addressing this if you can tell a more complete story of what’s going on, and it doesn’t change the fact that history happened," Sawyers said. "I am hurting just as badly, but I can address it in a way that helps cope with all that is going on in the past. I am going to feel much better when we get the colored soldier put up."
How Franklin got here
It wasn't an easy journey for Sawyers to get this place — not emotionally, but physically — with the square.
For the last three years, he and a group of pastors plus a historian worked on the project called the Fuller Story. It's become a unique endeavor in the country, where placards add context next to a Confederate monument in a city rather than tearing it down.
The goal was to place those displays and the U.S. Colored Troops statue in the square, which is where colored troops in Franklin signed up for the Union to fight in the Civil War. Other placards describe African-American events previously lost in Franklin's history, like the 1867 riot and what Reconstruction meant for new American citizens who were Black.
"I think that’s the beauty of the initiative," pastor Chris Williamson said. "It’s going to give hope as well as education. It’s going to give representation, which is needed in this time when African Americans are trying to assert our pretense and Black voice. Having that statue and who he represents — the 186,000 who were formerly enslaved Africans — brings the kind of hope and the pride that is exciting."
'It's not wicked'
But even with added context, that doesn't mean Franklin hasn't seen a movement to remove the statue in the middle of the square.
In 2017 after a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist killed a protester and wounded 28 others, a Franklin resident pushed an online petition on Change.org for its removal.
While no action was taken, the same is happening again with a similar petition started in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. A Change.org petition with 10,000 signatures is calling for the city of Franklin to take the monument down.
Around 250 protesters gathered in the square on Friday to call for the statue's removal.
"The statue makes me feel like an outsider, and it makes me feel like it’s not my town, though I know it is," said Nia Williamson, 19, one of the organizers. "It doesn’t represent my history, and what it does represent to me is the history if I was alive in 1899 I wouldn’t be heard or listened to."
But the city won't take it down for one reason alone.
Franklin, like other cities in Tennessee and across the South, doesn't own the monument. Back in 1997, a petitioner sued the city in federal court, wanting the monument removed. A judge declared the city didn't own the monument, but that it was owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy Chapter No. 14. As such, the city didn't have the right to remove it.
In fact, ancestral groups like the Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of the Confederacy own many of these Confederate monuments across the state. Attorney Doug Jones — representing the UDC Chapter Franklin No. 14 — said groups like the one in Franklin care about lineage, research and passing education down to future generations.
"So no, it doesn't need to come down," Jones said. "It needs to be there. This is good history. Slavery is terrible, and we don't need to erase it. It's our view keeping it out there in front is a good thing."
Jones said his research showed Union and Confederate burials were different after the Civil War, and not all soldiers were treated the same. He said the Confederate monument in Franklin's center tried to address that inequity.
"Since we lost, they left us laying," Jones said. "Our boys were left on the battlefield. There were thousands that never received a proper burial. So the (Daughters of the Confederacy) wanted memorials for the fallen. It doesn't promote the Confederacy. But those boys — they had mamas and daddies and brothers and sisters. Just like the boys from up north did. The monument, it's very innocent. It's not wicked. It's to honor them."
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How other places are handling it
Not every community that has a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Tennessee has a statue, but that doesn't keep each group from wanting to keep those monuments in place statewide.
And where those monuments stand matters to residents in town and to the Daughters of the Confederacy.
First making their statement in the Cleveland (Tenn.) Daily Banner, the Jefferson Davis Chapter 900 has dealt with similar issues as Franklin, with petitioners wanting to see their statue relocated from its prominent location in town.
In her statement, Jefferson Davis Chapter 900 president Linda Ballew said they would never take the monument down.
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After Reconstruction, the group placed the statue on Eighth Street in 1910. According to the Chattanooga News edition during that year, the monument cost $2,000.
"The UDOC has never been and never will be a racist organization," Ballew wrote in a statement. "The war was fought over 150 years ago. Debating the war could go on forever. We choose to honor all veterans as Americans, as it should be. We cannot be held responsible for what others did. Members of the UDOC have unanimously expressed this view, and will never waiver. Be assured Cleveland residents: the UDOC believes that the monument stands for all the fathers, husbands, sons and brothers that never returned home from the war."
Both Maryville and Cookeville, Tennessee, groups don't own a statue but the leader of Capt. W.Y.C. Hannum 1881 United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter doesn't want to see history destroyed throughout the state. With a history degree teaching at home school cooperatives, Rebecca Sardella said she's discussed a range of topics in her classes.
"As a history educator, I am passionate about teaching my students about all American history, and am therefore equally passionate about the preservation of all aspects of American history," said Sardella, leader of the Hannum UDC Chapter.
In Columbia, Tennessee, 24 miles from Franklin, a Confederate statue sits in the Rose Hill Cemetery, which Daughter of the Confederacy member Shelia Hickman doesn't see that as a problem.
However, she, too, is afraid of the destruction of other monuments in Tennessee and across the nation.
"There’s so much nonsense among people’s behavior. I am afraid they don’t have much of a perspective of history," Hickman said. "It can be looked at through a traditional point of view. It makes me wonder if 100 years from now, will they think we are foolish in 2020? If you look at the historical mistakes that have passed in these centuries of times, mankind has made a mess of things many times. I am fearful those who have such strong feelings don’t really know about the Civil War."
Emily West is a reporter for The Tennessean, covering Franklin and Williamson County. Follow her on Twitter at @emwest22 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.