Confederate monument in Brunswick's Hanover Square
Caption
The fate of the monument has become a source of bitter debate pitting those who believe it represents the city’s racist past against those who see it as a tribute to their ancestors’ struggle to preserve a way of life.
Credit: Donnell Suggs/The Current

The only monument in Hanover Square, a tree-lined park centrally located in Brunswick’s historic district, is of an unnamed Confederate soldier. On its base are the letters “BLM” spray painted in black. The letters have faded following multiple attempts to remove the months-old graffiti. 

The base of the Brunswick monument bears the fading paint from vandalism earlier this year.
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The base of the Brunswick monument bears the fading paint from vandalism earlier this year.
Credit: Donnell Suggs

 The fate of the monument has become a source of bitter debate pitting those who believe it represents the city’s racist past against those who see it as a tribute to their ancestors’ struggle to preserve a way of life. These conflicting versions of history have come into sharp contrast since the Feb. 23 pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery eight miles from Hanover Square. 

The violence captured on video in broad daylight and the months-long delay in arresting the three white men accused of murdering Arbery prompted weeks of peaceful protest across Glynn County and the rest of the country. Protesters ultimately focused on the monument as a symbol of the racism that many suspected of contributing to Arbery killing.

The Brunswick City Commission is expected to decide the fate of the statue at its Nov. 4 meeting, the day after Election Day. Options may be limited because of a 2019 Georgia law that prohibits moving Confederate monuments.

Mayor Cornell Harvey, who presides over a city that is nearly 60 percent Black and is himself Black and a Brunswick native, has said little publicly about the debate. But privately, he acknowledges that despite substantial legal challenges to removing the statue, he wants it gone, according to private communications obtained by The Current in response to public records requests. 

 “We all want it removed,” Harvey wrote in an Oct 12 letter to Diane Knight, a board member of the Robert S. Abbott Race Unity Institute. “But we must figure out a way that that does not cost the city a financial burden with lawsuits for breaking the law.” 

 “The statue is a sore and doesn’t depict who we are here in Brunswick,” Harvey wrote to Knight “However, it seems that the framework of it being here necessitates us doing something about it.”

Symbol of racism or heroic past?

Samantha Gilder, 31 and a Brunswick native, believes the statue must go.

“It’s not an accurate depiction of any history,” Gilder told The Current in a phone interview. “So what exactly are we honoring with it?

 “What we should be doing right now is focusing on how we can heal, how we can make sure that our Black and brown communities here can feel like they are seen and heard,” she said.

Yet, the idea of moving the statue has generated fierce opposition from residents who see it as a monument to the courage of Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War. They argue that Confederate soldiers should be accorded the same respect as any American veterans.

The monument was erected April 26,1902. One of the panels on the base of the monument reads: “A tribute of love from the Ladies Memorial Association of Brunswick, Georgia to the heroes of the Confederacy, 1861-1865.”

  Another panel reads: “In honor of the Confederate Soldiers. Who died to repel Unconstitutional Invasion to protect the Rights reserved to the People to perpetuate For ever the sovereignty Of the state.”

The city has held two well-attended and emotional hearings on the statue. At both, the number of speakers opposing the statue far outnumbered its supporters.

This statute does not honor our history, it dishonors it by glorifying the worst decision our ancestors made.
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This statute does not honor our history, it dishonors it by glorifying the worst decision our ancestors made.
Credit: Donnell Suggs

At the Sept. 23 hearing, Jim Barger, a St. Simons attorney and historian, identified himself as “a son of the South” who believes the monument should be removed.

“We must remove the Confederate monument from Hanover Square without further delay,” he said, his two young sons at his side. “This statute does not honor our history, it dishonors it by glorifying the worst decision our ancestors made. Many say, and I myself have been taught, that the Civil War was not about slavery but about state’s rights, but what was the primary issue, the right to own the bodies of other human beings and force them into submission?”

Jeff Kilgore, a Brunswick businessman spoke ardently at both hearings leaving the statue in place. Kilgore wrote a guest column in The Brunswick News blaming “outside agitators” for the controversy. He described the monument, as “a lone statue in Hanover Square that has stood valiantly for 118 years. 

“It merely commemorates the loyalty and dedication to the South by Brunswick natives who fought to save their land and their livelihood,” wrote Kilgore, who also chairs the Brunswick Housing Authority.

Kilgore also separated himself from the consensus historical view on the cause of the war.  “The war was not fought over slavery,” he wrote. “You see, the winner of a war gets to write its own history, so those of us in the South are burdened by the lies manufactured by Abraham Lincoln and the Northerners to justify what I call Lincoln’s War.”

Questions about advisory board

Among the most vocal supporters has been Linda Chancey, who was appointed by the city to a nine-member advisory committee asked to make a recommendation on the statue.

“As descendants we should be allowed to honor our ancestors, our history, and our heritage,” Chancey said at an Aug. 18 committee meeting of the committee recorded on Zoom. “I see no gain for the city of Brunswick.” 

Chancey cast the fifth and deciding vote to recommend keeping the statue in the square but adding other material to provide context.

Following the vote, the city received complaints about a number of Chancey’s Facebook posts in which she was alleged to have expressed racist and white supremacist views. Screen grabs of two dozen of her posts were obtained and reviewed by The Current

      Here is a sample:

  • On March 31, 2019 Chancey shared a post that described the term “white supremacist” as “a broadly applied ant-white racial slur used to label any white person who knowingly or unknowingly expresses or defends the rights or interests of their own ethnic group.”
  • On Sept. 1, 2017, she described “white supremacy” as a “Jewish term to support the anti-white rhetoric.” 
  • In a May 5, 2019 post she commented on a news story about a college cheating scandal: “Jews just cheating & teaching … move on folks, nothing to see here.” On March 4, 2017, she wrote: “Race is real. Race is important. I love my race. I will defend my race.” 
  •  On Oct. 8, 2019, she claimed that Lyndon Johnson “the grandson of a Jewish mother” ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy to continue the Vietnam War to further Johnson’s financial interests. 

City officials have not responded publicly to the controversy raised by the posts. Harvey said he has heard about the posts but has not seen them.

Chancey responded to a reporter by saying no one had taken action or complained about her posts.

Laura Khurana, who also served on the advisory committee and wants the statue moved, told The Current the process has been frustrating.

“I don’t think it was managed very well,” Khurana said. “We met four or five times and I feel like we didn’t make a lot of progress.”

“The four of us that voted against it did so because what we wanted to recommend to the commissioners was a full outline of all of their possible options rather than picking one of those options and picking that,” she said.

A grassroots community organization, A Better Glynn, contributed a proposal containing a number of options for the city to consider. 

The Current obtained a copy of that six-page proposal that outlined a number of alternatives. 

It also noted that a 2019 Georgia law protects monuments that are “established by federal, state, local and private agencies” from being moved. 

Other cities have defied state law

Despite the state law intended to protect Confederate monuments, at least one Georgia city has successfully taken one down. On June 19, a Confederate monument erected in 1908, was removed from the square in Decatur, following an order by a DeKalb County judge.

Judge Clarence Seeliger ordered the city to take down a 30-foot obelisk because it “has become an increasingly frequent target of graffiti and vandalism, a figurative lightning rod for friction among citizens, and a potential catastrophe that could happen at any time if individuals attempt to forcibly remove or destroy it.”

Seeliger’s decision has not been appealed.

In Savannah, the bust of Confederate Gen. Lafayette McLaws sits in Forsyth Park, surviving several vandalism attempts.
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In Savannah, the bust of Confederate Gen. Lafayette McLaws sits in Forsyth Park, surviving several vandalism attempts.
Credit: City of Savannah

In August, Athens officials removed a Confederate monument from downtown near the campus of the University of Georgia and have said they intend to move it out of the central city.

Savannah officials for three years have been considering moving two bronze busts of Confederate generals from Forsyth Park but have not yet determined what to do with them.

‘We are going to make a decision.’

Julie Martin, a three-term Brunswick commissioner, believes there’s a way to keep the  monument while keeping the peace. 

Martin, co-founder and executive director of Signature Squares of Brunswick, a non-profit that worked to renovate the city’s squares.

“History is history and you can’t really change it, but people interpret it differently especially as times go by and generations of people down the road all play into it,” Martin told The Current. “We have heard a plethora of opinions and thoughts, some really heartfelt reasoning behind keeping [it] in place versus moving it.

“It’s very challenging to have to draw a line in the sand because you’re never going to please everyone. The focus needs to be on strengthening our community.”

Martin believes the statue should remain. “Personally, because of what I do I am very history-minded, I think the heritage of a community makes each community unique and special in their own way. This has been eye-opening and educational. In hearing the vast number of different thoughts and ideas every person tells a different story and that monument means something different to each person and that is sort of my takeaway.”

“There’s no true yes or no, it’s not, pardon the phrase, a black and white issue so to speak. It’s very murky in some ways,” says Martin. 

 

Martin likes the idea of planting a live oak near the monument and calling it “the unity Oak.”

“Let’s have a dedication ceremony and bring the community together to celebrate bringing the community together,” she said. 

Rabbi Rachel Bregman, who leads the Temple Beth Tefiloh in Brunswick, has a similar take to how she hopes things ultimately work themselves out.

“Whatever it is that we do it has to be part of change,” she said. “The conversation has to be about how do we change, how do we heal, how do we grow, how are we better as a community? If it does that, great. I just think it’s really time for us to ask different questions.”

In any case, Harvey pledged that the city will act in November.

“We are going to make a decision,” Harvey told The Current. “In this job I am going to make somebody mad anyhow no matter what I am going to do. Some are going to like it and some won’t, but I am looking out for the overall good for the whole community.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Current, an independent, in-depth and investigative journalism website for Coastal Georgia.