Demopolis City Council addresses damaged monument
January 20, 2017
by Stewart Gwin
The Demopolis City Council used the majority of its meeting Thursday to discuss the future of the Confederate Monument that was damaged when an on-duty police officer struck the monument in the early morning hours of July 16, 2016.
With over 40 in attendance, Mayor John Laney opened the meeting by explaining that the meeting was not a public hearing; rather, it was an open meeting that offered the public the ability to witness the city council carry on its business.
Laney announced that the city has closed on the acquisition of the property required to expand the road near the chip mill at the airport industrial park. The engineering firm has been contacted and work is to begin soon.
Attorney Scott Stapp of Manley, Trager, Perry, Stapp & Compton said that they were reviewing the procedure currently in place for dilapidated housing and had no report for the council at this time. The firm hopes to simplify the procedure in the future.
In unfinished business, Councilman Nathan Hardy said that the Roman Alley access project is still underway and he met with property owners recently on the project.
Councilman Charles Jones updated the council on the Decatur Street ditch project.
“P.O.s are in place and pipes have been ordered,” said Jones. “We’ve still got some issues with the water department, so we’ve got to get with them to work those out.”
The final agenda item in unfinished business was the Confederate Monument.
Laney updated those in attendance on the status of the monument.
“Number one, there was an accident where the statue was hit and the Confederate soldier atop the statue fell off the statue and it’s broken and it’s non-reparable. Number two, fortunately, there is insurance on the statue, so there is money to repair the statue. Money is not an issue when it comes to whatever we decide to do with the statue,” said Laney
That insurance policy, according to Laney, is worth $105,000 and carries a $5,000 deductible.
Laney then opened the floor for the council to discuss.
Councilman Jones indicated that former mayor Mike Grayson convened a committee that met to discuss the situation and recommended placing the soldier in the Marengo County History and Archive Museum. An obelisk would then be placed atop the existing pedestal and something would be put on the four sides of the monument honoring those who died in all wars.
“I thought it was done,” said Jones, who also served on the committee. “Now I understand that it’s back. A committee of six whites and six blacks met, civic leaders, but I guess we need to revisit because evidently what I thought was done is not.”
“I think there was supposed to be a committee formed to do that,” said Councilman Bill Meador. “I don’t recall getting any report from it or that there was any dispensation of that meeting or even a consensus of what was to be done that came to the council. Am I wrong on that?”
Councilman Hardy confirmed Meador’s recollection.
“I think you’re right on that, Bill. I talked to one of the ones on the committee but they couldn’t all get together at the same time and give us that recommendation personally in open meeting,” said Hardy.
Councilman Cleveland Cole echoed Meador’s sentiments.
“I agree with Bill on it. I think it needs to be repaired and replaced,” said Cole. “Most of us who have lived here most of our lives, it’s like a symbol of Demopolis. We’ve grown up with it. It’s been here as far back as I remember, and I’d hate to see anything happen to it. I think it needs to be re-erected and repaired and that’s what I would like to see.”
Councilman Harris Nelson reminded the council that the Marengo County Historical Society (MCHS) also has recommended placing an obelisk atop the existing pedestal.
“We have a private historical society and a civic group recommending the same thing,” said Nelson.
“That statue means a lot to a lot of people in this town, some good, some bad, and this town’s motto is ‘City of the People’ and that statue represents a time when not everybody in this room was considered a person. That’s a sad part of history, but it’s part of our history. We need to understand it, know it, but that doesn’t mean we have to memorialize it in our downtown square,” said Nelson.
“We just need to stick together as a group of citizens, look at the bigger picture, and make sure that we make a good decision as a whole…we don’t need to be hasty and rush. I know this has been dragging on but we’re trying to make a good decision,” said Hardy.
“If that statue had never been hit in the first place, then it’d still be down here,” said Cole. “That’s something we all need to look at.”
“Along that same thought process, nobody up here is voting to take the statue down,” said Nelson.
Nelson went on to say that he grew up in a town that had a Civil War battle, and the town had a memorial commemorating that battle.
“I think if we’d had something like that in town that truly was historic, I think I’d feel a little different,” said Nelson. “This past August when I ran for reelection I was asked about this, and I told people when I was asked about it that I was in favor of an obelisk. I believe you did the same thing [referring to Mayor John Laney] when you were asked about it. You didn’t lose too many votes did you?” Nelson asked, jokingly.
Laney said he understands both sides in the situation, and that there is a logic that says it should be replaced since it was damaged by in an accident.
“As mayor, representing all the people, and understanding that Demopolis is the people’s city, what I tend to look at is not the statue so much, but what does the city need to do to move forward so that we can raise the standard of living for everybody who works and lives in the city. One of the observations I made as I walked through the city is that we have two cities within Demopolis. We’ve got a city of 7,800 people, but it’s essentially two cities of 3,900 because the demographics is such that we don’t work together. We need to do things to change that, and I think that needs to be factored into the decision made by the council because we need to move forward economically,” said Laney.
He went on to explain that between 1990 and 2014, Marengo County lost 28-percent of its population between the ages of 0 and 44.
“We’re losing our working age population and we’re losing our children. We have to do things to turn that around. And I personally believe one way to do that is by having us come together as a city and work together as opposed to having things there that potentially signify things that have separated us in the past,” said Laney.
Laney explained that when the MCHS met to discuss the monument, he was board president. He said that the board is made up of a cross section of the local community.
“They [MCHS] saw the need to do something different. The Preservation Commission recommended that something different be done. I’ve talked with people on both sides, and there’s a certain segment of our population that they don’t say anything, but they endure. And I think it’s time that we do things so that they recognize that we are together as one city and they’re not having to endure, that they feel part of our city,” said Laney.
Laney then asked if anyone would like to make a motion to move the process forward.
Cole made a motion to have the soldier repaired and re-erected. With no second, the motion failed.
Meador made a motion to proceed with repair of the statue, leaving the final result open-ended, and reconvening with the committee initially appointed by Grayson to hear recommendations, then use the public input and the committee recommendations to determine the final outcome of what’s done with the statue.
The motion was seconded by Laney.
“The alternative is not doing anything and leaving it like it is,” said Meador.
“Not doing anything might be the option at this point because to repair it might mean to repair it so it can be re-erected on top of the pedestal versus repairing it so it can be erected somewhere else,” Jones said. “It’s not going to sit by itself in a museum, so we’re going to spend money and then stop at some point because we don’t know where it’s going, so I would think that we would need to know where it’s going before we repair it.”
The council then discussed what was meant by “repair the statue,” and whether that meant repairing the entire monument to its original state, or if that meant repairing the soldier that historically stood atop the pedestal, then deciding whether the soldier should be installed atop the pedestal or in the museum. When the accident occurred, the solider broke off the monument just above the ankles, so repairing the soldier would involve the addition of the lower limbs along with the appropriate base, which would be determined by the final installation of the soldier.
Jones was concerned that the insurance policy may only cover repairs back to the original state of the monument, but Laney confirmed to the council that, based on his understanding, the insurance policy will cover any repairs up to $105,000 provided that the city does not move the monument. The funds will cover whatever decision the council makes, whether that be an obelisk or repair and replacement of the soldier.
After discussion, the council was unable to reach a clear definition of what was meant by the motion, but there seemed to be consensus that no funds should be spent until a clear direction was determined. Laney withdrew his seconding of the motion and the motion failed.
Hardy then made a motion that the original committee reconvene and then bring a recommendation before the council. The council will then move forward after the committee’s recommendation. The motion was seconded by Nelson. There being no discussion, a rollcall vote was taken and the council unanimously agreed.
Phillip Spence appeared before the council to address the monument issue at hand. Spence said he’s lived in Demopolis since 1965 and the monument has been a big part of his life, and has historical value for many different people.
Spence reflected back on his time served in Germany in the 1980s and the monuments he visited to both WWI German soldiers and WWII German soldiers and sailors, despite the fact that that was a dark time in German history.
“It wasn’t lost upon me that my great-grandmother was Jewish,” said Spence. “The problem is, the Germans embraced it. They made sure no one forgot where they came from. They had statues from the ones who had fallen in battle, but they also remembered the fact that six million Jews perished. I took that with a grain of salt. I realized that I was third generation away from my Jewish family, but I still embraced the fact that I was from a Jewish family. But I had no problem with accepting the fact that not everybody thinks the way that we do.”
Spence went on to say that those who do not remember history are destined to repeat it.
“I understand that in the eyes of some people, really all of us, that that was an unsavory time and there were some horrible things done; however, if you erase history, what are the chances of the next generation remembering?” said Spence.
Spence went on to draw on his Jewish family’s ties to slavery when the Jews were removed from their homeland in Israel.
“Speaking from my Jewish side of my family, I understand slavery. We spent 400 years is prison in Egypt, we spent time in Babylon, we spent time in Assyria, we spent time in Baghdad, because we were taken away from our homeland in Israel,” said Spence. “If we start erasing history, where do we stop? Bluff Hall, Gaineswood, the Whitfield Canal?”
Spence said that he knows that the statue has been damaged more than it originally was by the city using a forklift on it, but that there is a local man who is able to repair the statue. Spence also said that the quarry where the stone came from is still operational.
“The statue was standing at parade rest. That is not a combative situation. The statue was standing facing south. He was looking home. He wanted to come back home and get out of this war and be done with it. It wasn’t an offensive statue. It wasn’t looking to restore slavery. It was looking to come back home, find peace, restore families, and rebuild the country that had gone through five years of destructive warfare that we had never seen before in our history,” said Spence.
Spence left the council with a final thought: “If you bring the same people back [referring to the original committee reconvening], don’t you think you’re going to come up with exactly the same solution you had before? Could you not open it up to have people join the committee?”
Laney said he wouldn’t answer that immediately, but would have an answer in due time.
“Thank you for your time, I think this discussion was open and frank, but I think your hearts are in the right place and you want to do the right thing,” said Spence.
At the end of the meeting, members of the public were allowed to address the council with a time limit of two minutes.
Morgan Nelson, a 2003 Demopolis High School alum, was first to address the council.
“I graduated in 2003 when we were still having separate proms, because we thought it was OK. It’s what all the other classes were doing so it wasn’t a big deal…I say all this sarcastically, by the way,” said Nelson.
Nelson went on to say that after attending the University of Alabama and then moving back to Demopolis, she realized that that was not OK, and it was not OK in 2003.
“I had friends that were in complete disbelief that there were towns where this was happening. This is also what the Confederate Statue represents to me now,” said Nelson. “It represents one race of people, only honors one set of soldiers, in a town that had no battles during the Civil War. It’s a constant reminder that no matter how this town has grown and changed with times—we’re the only town around that has a fully-integrated public school system—we are constantly held back by race. We are the City of the People, and that’s all people, not just one people,” said Nelson.
Rev. Jesse Moore then addressed the council.
Moore told a story of a young congregant who came to him during revival services and said he was full of hatred, but wanted God to change him from the inside out.
“My point tonight is: when we look at what we do here in 2017, we should look at things that are going to bring us together. And whatever those things are, that’s what we need to look at. If we have five items—whatever they are—and one of those five items will bring us together, don’t focus on the four that divide us. Focus on the one that will unite us and bring us together. Do something that’s going to represent all of Demopolis, OK?” said Moore.
Broughton Rogers said he liked to compromise.
“I think you can do both,” said Rogers. “I think you reestablish the monument, and then if you want to erect another monument here in the Confederate Park and honor anybody you want to, Dr. Marin Luther King or anybody else. I think that would bring us together. I don’t find that monument offensive. Why don’t we make a monument to the civil rights?”
Pat Godwin, president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) Chapter 53 in Selma brought a group with her to the meeting. Those attending with Godwin were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and UDC, but she insisted that none of them were attending the meeting as official representatives of either organization.
“That monument was put here as a gift [from the UDC] in the spirit that after they were gone, that monument would remain,” said Godwin.
Godwin said the members of UDC sold eggs, and made quilts and cheese to raise the funds to gift the monument to the city.
“You stated that from like 1990 to 2014, that Demopolis has been in economic decline. Really and truly, I’d like to ask everybody here, whether you have a job or don’t have a job, do you think that that monument out there on the square has anything to do with bread and butter on your table? I mean really, did it have anything to do with your salary? Did you get a raise because the monument was out there? Did you not get a raise because the monument was out there? Historians, both professional historians and amateur historians, regardless of whether some people like it or not, the War Between the States is a great topic, a very focal topic of this country’s history,” said Godwin.
She went on to say that tourism associated with the Civil War is an economic benefit to the area.
“The [Alabama] Director of Tourism Lee Sentell has been quoted in the newspaper in past years that over two billion dollars is garnered through tourist dollars for the state of Alabama because of the War Between the States’ history.”
Godwin said that Demopolis is a historic town, and since the town is in economic decline, perhaps showcasing all of Demopolis’ history would be viable.
“Take advantage of that and capitalize on that. Don’t tear your history down, but be proud of your history, be proud of all of your history, and that’s what I encourage people in Selma to do,” said Godwin.
Through a meeting with former mayor Grayson, Godwin said she learned of the high deductible for the insurance to repair the monument. Although she stressed she was not there on official business for the UDC, she said that the UDC is willing to pay part of the deductible to repair the monument, but only under the condition that it is repaired and restored to its original state as when the UDC installed it in 1910.
Demopolis resident Harold Park reminded the council that the statue is a registered statue with the Smithsonian Institute.
“It has a number that has been assigned to it, it has been surveyed and looked at by their people in the arts department,” said Park. “From the conversation held tonight, I just want to say I don’t think this is a race issue at all and it shouldn’t be considered that. If you read the writings on the monument: ‘Our Confederate Dead.’ There were black soldiers, there were white soldiers that gave their lives for the cause. Thank you,” said Park.
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