The changing face of the courthouse square

Daily Journal

Lee County Courthouse monuments and memorials
– Fountain – donated by the Tupelo Garden Club to replace a previous fountain, given approximately eight years ago

– Tree – planted by the Local Camp Woodmen of the World, no date or reason stated

– Bicentennial Time Capsule – encased July 4, 1976 by the Tupelo-Lee County Bicentennial Commission, to be opened July 4, 2076

– American and Mississippi flags – presented by the Woodmen of the World, no date or reason stated

– Confederate Soldier memorial – presented by the soldiers’ "comrades, their sons and daughters" and unveiled May 3, 1906

– Statue commemorating the statewide prohibition – presented by the Tupelo Woman’s Christian Temperance Union on Jan. 1, 1908

– Lee County War Memorial – presented by the VFW Post 4057 and honoring fallen soldiers from WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, no date

– Elvis Presley monument – erected March 19, 2004 by the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau to note that Elvis performed on a radio show broadcast from the courthouse

– Tree – planted by the Tupelo Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1932 to recognize Washington’s bicentennial

Civil rights monument

The Coalition for Change is scheduled to unveil a rendering of the estimated $7,000 civil rights monument to the Lee County Board of Supervisors in early September.

Coalition spokesman James Hull said $1,000 already has been raised and the group hopes to begin work on the actual monument soon.

To donate money to the cause, contact the CREATE Foundation at (662) 844-8989.

By Emily Le Coz
Daily Journal

TUPELO – It’s no accident the Coalition for Change wants to see its new civil rights memorial erected on the Lee County Courthouse lawn, as opposed to some other high-traffic public area.

The courthouse here – as in most Southern communities – has long served as the center of town and the hub of activity. It’s where people gather to conduct business, resolve disputes, share news, hold rallies and enjoy festivals.

It’s the heart of the community and the bosom of its history.

"The courthouse is a physical and symbolic anchoring for the sense of community in the South," said Charles Reagan Wilson, former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and current Cook Chair of History at the University of Mississippi.

Wilson said courthouses were intentionally placed in the center of towns to reflect their importance in the communities. And although Tupelo has long since grown beyond its courthouse square, its role hasn’t changed much in the 104 years since it was built.

"It’s a place of stability and common meeting ground," Wilson said. "The Confederate monuments were placed on town squares for exactly that reason. In the old days, whites wanted those Confederate monuments there to recognize the importance of the Civil War experience to the South, so it’s the same reason you want to put a civil rights monument there."

The Coalition for Change this year successfully lobbied the Lee County Board of Supervisors for the right to place their civil-rights monument there. The group won approval in July after one earlier failed attempt and several months of raising awareness for the effort.

When it’s finally erected – likely later this year or early next year – the monument will join nine other memorials dotting the courthouse lawn. One of them is a tribute to Confederate soldiers, erected by their "comrades, their sons and daughters" in 1906.

Coalition spokesman James Hull echoed Wilson’s comments in explaining why his group’s memorial deserves to share the same space with the Civil War tribute. He said he understands the county’s history and heritage and its need to recognize its Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War. But he said the community also must recognize those who fought for civil rights some 100 years later.

"The civil rights movement is also heritage," he told the Daily Journal earlier this summer. "It’s also history."

The Lee County Courthouse, which stands at Court Street between Spring and Broadway, was designed by Patrick Henry Weathers in the classic-revival style. Built of stone and copper in 1904, the two-story domed structure is now on the National Historic Register.

The courthouse’s first monument – the Confederate memorial – graced its grounds just two years after construction. Two years later, a stone angel joined company, erected by the Tupelo Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to commemorate the statewide prohibition of alcohol.

More than two decades past before the next tribute came along – a tree planted by the Tupelo Business and Professional Women’s Club in 1932 to recognize Washington’s bicentennial.

Other monuments and memorials slowly accumulated over the years, including a Lee County War Memorial, Bicentennial Time Capsule, and a marker honoring Elvis Presley.

All had to fit a certain image to preserve the integrity of the courthouse and to maintain a positive image, said Chancery Clerk Bill Benson.

"I think it’s important that it is kept to a standard because, I think that it is the focal point of the county seat," Benson said. "It must look nice, be maintained and preserved. If somebody comes for whatever reason, that’s the image that they’ll remember."

True, said Pat Rasberry, assistant director of the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau and head of the city’s Film Commission and annual Film Festival.

"We have film crews here all the time wanting to get footage of our historical sights, and they always get the courthouse," she said. "It’s an icon for our city."

Rasberry and city tourism Director Linda Butler Johnson said the courthouse attracts numerous tourists for various reasons who stroll the lawn and view the memorials and markers.

What they see when they get there, though, will continue to change along with the South itself, according to John Marszalek, Mississippi State University’s Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history.

"What’s happening actually – and in the South particularly – it’s no secret that it was a place of Jim Crow-ism until the 1960s, so any memorialization of history was done so from the white point of view," Marszalek said. "With the civil rights movement, blacks began to vote and elect black officials, so for the past 25 years there have been more successful attempts to present not just the white perspective on the history of the South but to include the role blacks of have played."

Marszalek said the situation has stirred a public discussion of what should be remembered and who should be honored and how all of that gets done. But he said it’s a necessary discussion and lauds the communities actively engaged in it.

For Hull and the members of his coalition, however, it’s about doing what’s right.

"It’s the blood, sweat and tears of those who tried to bring the city together," coalition member Rosa Roberts said. "We are going to recognize that."

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