Bulloch County commissioners, by a 3-2 vote along racial lines Tuesday morning, denied the Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center’s request for a marker placing the 1909 Confederate memorial on the courthouse grounds in the context of white supremacy and glorification of “the Lost Cause.”
Commissioner Jappy Stringer was absent, and Chairman Roy Thompson’s tiebreaker vote was not needed.
When the commissioners heard from people signed up to speak on the topic, Thompson announced that each would have a four-minute time limit. Six people, several of whom are active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, then spoke against the contextual marker. Only Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the Willow Hill Center’s board, had signed up to speak in favor.
First to speak Tuesday was Jeffrey M. “Bubba” Webster. When a June 6 rally was held on the courthouse grounds, attended by about 400 mostly local people in protest against the killings of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes across the country, Webster had been one of several SCV members who wore guns to the courthouse square and, and at police request, moved to the other side of the street.
“As a proud member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, I am of course opposed to the placement of the so-called contextual marker on the courthouse grounds,” Webster said. “The proposed marker contains the assertion that the Confederate monument was erected to memorialize, quote, ‘faulty history.’ Therefore a little history lesson is in order. … “
The version of history he advocates is one that denies, or at least minimizes, slavery as a cause of the Civil War. Webster was also the first of two or three of the speakers to state that most Confederate soldiers – he said nine out of 10 – did not own slaves.
Slams BLM protest
He argued that in the current national context, allowing the contextual marker would mean “giving in to rioters and looters” and referred to the June 6 rally – where Willow Hill representatives unveiled the marker proposal – as a “Black Lives Matter/Antifa rally” where “vulgarity and calls for violence” were heard.
“Black lives matter!” was indeed a frequent chant and protest-sign message at the June 6 event, but it was locally organized. Antifa wasn’t mentioned by speakers nor exhibited any presence at the event. Statesboro Herald journalists heard some profanity, but no calls for violence, unless Webster meant chants to tear down the Confederate soldier statue.
During the rally, Jackson and the Rev. Jane Page, chair of the Willow Hill Center’s marker committee, had displayed temporary signs of the original contextual marker as a middle ground proposal, while noting that their eventual goal was peaceful, legally authorized removal of the monument.
Michael Mull, commander of Ogeechee Rifles Camp 941 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had proposed alternative wording for a contextual marker. But leaders of the Willow Hill group rejected his proposal, and it wasn’t mentioned Tuesday.
“I rise to speak in opposition to the adoption of this resolution,” Mull said. “My reason is simple. The proposed wording for the marker is conjecture and opinion and not proven or established facts.”
He noted that the inscription on the south face of the monument base reads, “Comrades; In Memory of the Confederate Soldiers; 1861-1865.” (Actually, “Comrades” is at bottom.)
“That’s the context of the monument, and it needs no further definition,” Mull said. “I’ve read the text of the speech given on the April day back in 1909 when the monument was unveiled and dedicated. Nowhere, I repeat, nowhere in those remarks were the words ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ or anything referring to that institution mentioned.”
The Statesboro Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy funded the 1909 installation.
2017 county policy
Mull asserted that the allowing the Willow Hill group’s marker would discriminate against the Sons of Confederate Veterans camp, since he and another member had met with Thompson and County Manager Tom Couch two years ago to request placement of a plaque at the courthouse.
“We were then informed of the existence of a policy, adopted on April 18, 2017, stipulating that after that date, no monuments, signs or structures of a permanent nature could be placed on the courthouse grounds,” Mull said. “We understood that policy applied across-the-board, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans were not singled out.”
If the Willow Hill group’s request were granted, the Ogeechee Rifles would insist on fair treatment and request placement of their own marker, he said.
Mull had copies of what he said was the proposed text distributed to commissioners. It began, “WANTED: Uncontrovertible proof that Confederate monuments were raised to celebrate white supremacy or support Jim Crow laws and NOT to commemorate deceased soldiers …”
After four more speakers against the proposal, Jackson came to the lectern. Page stood beside him but had not signed up to speak.
First, Jackson talked about the Willow Hill School, founded in 1874 by formerly enslaved people, and how those founders – his ancestors – had family names that were also those of their white slaveholders. Then he noted how the marker committee was one of four committees the Willow Hill Center named to plan aspects of its ongoing commemoration of 400 Years of African American History: 1619-2019.
“We all recognized that America is one of the greatest countries in the world, but we must also agree that the basis of the country was founded on white supremacy and white superiority,” Jackson said. “So we must at some point have this conversation, though painful it may be, to deal with issues of our past as it relates to our future.”
But the four-minute timer chimed as he began to talk about the formation of the Confederacy by 11 slave-holding states.
Thompson then asked for discussion from the commissioners.
“I understand both sides and I appreciate everybody coming. …,” said Commissioner Timmy Rushing. “Everybody knows we’ve got several, several groups. I’m not going to try to name all of them, I’m going to name two of them that would like to put a plaque up, that’s Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. There’s not but so much room up there at the courthouse.”
Rushing made a motion to uphold the 2017 policy and thereby deny the Willow Hill group’s request. Commissioner Curt Deal seconded the motion. Commissioner Walter Gibson joined in the “yes” vote by show of hands. Commissioner Anthony Simmons and Commissioner Ray Mosley, the two African American members of the elected board, voted against.
“Back to the drawing board,” was one of Jackson’s remarks after the meeting.He said he had been unaware of four-minute limit until Thompson announced it and did not expect so many opposition speakers when he planned to be the one speaker for the proposal. The meeting was subject to social distancing, with all seats filled and some county staff members waiting in the hallway.