FRANKLIN, Tenn. (CN) — Despite wide support from residents, Franklin, Tennessee has had to sue the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy in its attempt to install four historical plaques describing the history of Civil War-era black residents in the public square.
After the fatal 2017 Charlottesville, Va., riot over the removal of a statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the Rev. Kevin Riggs and other Franklin-area pastors decided to do something about the Confederate memorial in the city’s public square.
The pillar erected to remember Confederate soldiers who died in the bloody Battle of Franklin is nicknamed “Chip” for the injury the mustachioed statue received to its hat when it was being installed.
“[If] something like what happened in Charlottesville happened in Franklin, the city would look to the churches and the pastors to bring healing,” Riggs said. “And so instead of waiting for something negative to happen, what could we do that would be positive?”
Franklin, pop. 79,000, is 20 miles south of Nashville.
In the months after the Charlottesville riot, city and county governments have responded differently to the question of Confederate monuments in their communities. Hamilton County, Tenn., decided to keep its monument of Confederate General A.P. Stewart on its courthouse lawn in Chattanooga.
Memphis found a loophole in state law to remove its statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan.
Franklin is trying to forge a third way, by adding plaques near the Confederate monument to create context. But a question over land ownership has the United Daughters of the Confederacy fighting the proposal.
According to Riggs, the city’s current telling of its Civil War history is one-sided and lacks the stories of black residents of the area.
Riggs is pastor of Franklin Community Church, a small church with a focus on social justice. While the church operates within the wealthiest county of Tennessee, many members of Riggs’ church are low-income and about half are black.
In late summer, Riggs joined a group of pastors and a historian to present a proposal to Franklin’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen to “give a fuller story” about Franklin’s Civil War history as experienced by its black residents.
The four plaques would tell the stories of a former slave market, the black residents who signed up to fight for the Union Army at a nearby provost office, a race riot and the Reconstruction Era.
Eventually, the group wants the city to commission a statue to memorialize the 300 black residents from the area who fought in the Civil War with the United States Colored Troops.
The idea garnered wide support. The county Chamber of Commerce and the visitors bureau sent letters of support, as did a handful of local historical preservation organizations.
But the local Daughters of the Confederacy claimed that the public square was theirs, thanks to an old court decree, and they said they were not consulted about the monuments. To resolve the question, the City of Franklin sued the Franklin Chapter 14 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Aug. 31 in Williamson County Chancery Court.
“On August 28, 2018,” the 5-page complaint states,“counsel for the Franklin UDC threatened to sue the city if it placed historic markers depicting the experience of the African-Americans before, during, and after the Civil War within the Public Square, claiming ownership of the Public Square.”
The lawsuit, filed by City Attorney Shauna Billingsley, asked the court to declare who owned the land surrounding the Confederate monument.
Billingsley told Courthouse News that the city has used the public square for various celebrations. The city flies flags from it. A Christmas tree stands there for the holidays, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy has not objected to the city’s displays.
“Ultimately, the UDC does not want to see anything in the public square relating to the African-American experience,” Billingsley wrote. “Their lawyer, when threatening to sue the city, said that these types of signs should be installed just away of the public square.”
While the United Daughters of the Confederacy claims ownership of the whole square, Billingsley said the city contends that the group controls neither the statue nor the square.
The city says the monument sits on a small patch — just large enough to support the monument — of no-man’s land.
“The city is not sure who owns the monument legally, since the Franklin Chapter No. 14 of the UDC is not a legally recognized or created entity,” Billingsley told Courthouse News, “but the city knows it does not own it.”
The Franklin Confederate monument went up in 1899 when the Williamson County Court gave permission to a local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to memorialize Confederate soldiers in the Franklin town square.
The city, in its lawsuit, contends it “has maintained the Public Square and continues to maintain the Public Square for as long as anyone associated with the city can remember. At no time has the UDC paid property taxes related to the Public Square or otherwise offered financial assistance to redevelop or maintain the Public Square.”
In May 2010, the city and the United Daughters of the Confederacy agreed that the group would monitor the status of the monument and the city would handle its upkeep.
Doug Jones of the Nashville-based firm Schulman, Leroy & Bennett filed the UDC’s reply on Nov. 8.
As for taxes, the organization acknowledged that “no government entity has ever assessed property taxes as to the monument or its site,” Jones’ answer said.
The answer questioned the city’s assertions, however, that a deed was never filed and that the city was the only group to make changes to the public square.
Jones cited previous court declarations as proof that the group he represents owns Franklin’s public square.
“The City of Franklin’s claim of ownership is barred by the doctrine of estoppels based on the actions of the 1899 County Court of Williamson County acting as the party having authority and jurisdiction over the matter at that point in time,” Jones wrote in the answer.
Jones told Courthouse News the city’s effort is an existential threat to the monument. After the Charlottesville riot, Jones said, members of the city said they wanted to remove the statue. “They wanted it gone,” he said.
According to Jones, the monument memorializes the soldiers who died in the Battle of Franklin, of Nov. 30, 1864. During that battle, thousands of Confederate soldiers threw themselves against fortified Union positions, resulting in heavy casualties.
“This isn’t something to protect these ladies. … This is American history we are talking about protecting,” Jones said. “And there’s a big effort to erase it.”
Jones said the city has changed its position on the monument over the years.
In 1996, a black man sued Franklin in federal court, challenging the display of the monument. According to the Nashville Scene at the time, Pat Steele, then 36, said the display was racist. But the city argued that it did not own the land on which the monument stood — that the UDC owned it.
“We’re all for telling the whole story,” Jones said, “not just the Confederate story. … We don’t need to forget the war, or we’re going to trip over ourselves again. But absolutely, the whole story needs to be told and it needs to be told in Franklin. It needs to be told everywhere.”
While history should be told, Jones said, the issue is that the city deeded the land to the Daughters of the Confederacy. While the city wants to add monuments to the land, the city never consulted the group.
“They crept around and conspired against us,” Jones said.
Since the complaint has been filed and an answer made, discovery will begin soon. As for the monument proposal itself, the details need to be considered by several local commissions.