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New Markers in Atlanta Aim to Put Confederate Monuments in Context

The city is installing the historical markers next to four of its most prominent Confederate memorials

Markers will be added to the "Lion of Atlanta" monument, along with three others. (Andrew Kuchling via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
smithsonian.com

Atlanta is dotted with controversial monuments to the Confederacy and its heroes. Activists and public officials have long wanted to see these memorials taken down, but restrictive state laws make it virtually impossible to do so. Now, the city is trying a different approach: As Rosalind Bentley reports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta is installing markers next to four of the city's most prominent Confederate monuments that acknowledge slavery and its devastating effects.

The markers will be erected next to the “Lion of the Confederacy” in Oakland Cemetery, which is surrounded by the graves of 3,000 unknown Confederate soldiers; the “Confederate Obelisk,” also in Oakland Cemetery, which towers over the graveyard’s Confederate section; a monument commemorating the Battle of Peachtree Creek; and the “Peace Monument” in Piedmont Park, which honors efforts by Atlanta’s Gate City Guard to reconcile the North and South in the years after the war.

To place these memorials within the broader context of the conflict, the markers will discuss slavery, racial persecution in the aftermath of the Civil War, segregation and the long-standing impacts of disenfranchisement. The Peace Monument marker, for instance, will explain that although 200,000 black soldiers fought in the Civil War, African-Americans were excluded from the Gate City Guard’s “Peace Mission” to the North, as Nicquel Terry Ellis of USA Today reports.

Across the country, cities and states have been grappling with how to treat their Confederate monuments—a national reckoning driven, in part, by the deadly white nationalist rallies that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. That same year, then-Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed created a commission to address memorials and street names that pay tribute to the Confederacy. According to Nicole Carr of WSB-TV, community members, civil rights leaders and city leaders participated in the committee.

Per the group’s recommendation, Atlanta’s Confederate Avenue was renamed United Avenue earlier this year. But the statues posed a sticker problem. A 2001 state law prohibits changing, removing or obscuring any Georgia monument that recounts or honors American military service past or present. In April, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that seemed to double down on Confederate monuments’ protections, imposing steep fines on anyone convicted of vandalizing public monuments—something that had been happening in recent years.

Some advocates have argued that Atlanta’s new markers don’t go far enough to mitigate the painful legacy that the city’s Confederate monuments represent. “A plaque standing next to something that massive and already offensive can’t really undo the harm to citizens who are being exposed to it,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells USA Today’s Ellis. “It’s very, very hard to write history correctly about what happened in the Confederacy and in the South when you’re facing monuments.”

But members of the committee say that the markers represent a meaningful solution—and the best one they can hope for, given restrictions on taking down the monuments entirely.

“Georgia is one of those states where you’re not permitted to move or relocate [monuments],” Sheffield Hale, CEO of the Atlanta History Center and co-chair of the committee, tells Carr of WSB-TV. “And so, if that’s off the table and you have concerns about the monuments, we believe the best thing you can do is to contextualize them.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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