City officials said Tuesday they’ll put a contextual marker beside a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee that has sat in J.F. Gregory Park since it was gifted to the city 20 years ago.
A prepared statement attributed to Mayor Russ Carpenter and the city council said the statue is “creating division in our community at a time when we are all working to improve the already respectful community relations we have long enjoyed.”
During an online forum Saturday that was sponsored and moderated by the Bryan County NAACP, Carpenter was asked about the statue and said city leaders decided to move the statue, but learned that’s prohibited by state law.
In Tuesday’s statement, the city reiterated it cannot move the statue legally but will work to add a counterpoint to the statue, which sits in a corner of the park framed by palms.
“Although we agree the statue might be better in a different location, Georgia state laws protecting Confederate monuments have been strengthened over the years with tougher penalties for vandalization, and their removal is prohibited.”
The contextual marker “will be a starting point for people of all races to have a conversation about the Civil War and crucial lessons learned from that bleak time in our nation’s history,” the city said. In response to the city’s announcement, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said: Saturday, Carpenter said the city will work with the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor local war heroes such Sgt. Harry Lee Boles, an African American Richmond Hill native who was killed in Vietnam.
That, too, was reiterated in the city’s statement sent out Tuesday. “A future project has begun with the local VFW to erect a monument honoring Richmond Hill’s fallen war heroes. We have also begun an ongoing dialogue with the Bryan NAACP and other residents with the purpose of ensuring that we seize the opportunity to strengthen ties between different community groups and quell racism wherever we find it,” the release said.
During Saturday’s forum, the Rev. Hubert Quiller or Restoration Worship Center likened the impact of Lee’s statue on African Americans to that of a poisonous snake.
“If I were ever bitten by a diamond back rattle snake or a king cobra, and had a picture of portrait in our house, each time I walked by it I would feel some kind of way,” he said. “Each time I walk by the statue I must ask myself how my great-great-great grandmother or grandfather would feel if she or he had to walk by it or have it in his or her presence. So in my honest opinion, we ought to be aggressively looking for a way to get this symbol placed in a museum. I believe in history, and I believe history has its place. I don’t believe hate has any place.”
Carpenter responded saying the statue needs to be moved from the park, and “has the idea it should be at Fort McAllister, which is about the Civil War and a better place for it,” he said.
Also participating in the forum, which was held online and live streamed on the Bryan County NAACP’s Facebook page, were Pastor Daniel Boyd of Emmanuel Christian Church, State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, Pembroke Mayor Pro Tem Johnnie Miller, Pembroke Public Safety Director Bill Collins and Richmond Hill Police Chief Mitch Shores, who said he didn’t know the statue was in the park until a few years ago.
“My short answer is I didn’t know it was causing disunity, if there was I never heard of it,” he said, adding he was empathetic to Quiller’s concerns but urged caution in removing historic symbols, citing recent vandalism of statues of people who were abolitionists and helped free slaves. The forum was moderated by Bryan NAACP members Eva Newbold and Dave Williams, who asked questions of each panelist ranging from whether they believed systemic racism existed in local government institutions to how they can address systemic racism.
While local panelists to a man said they’re unaware of institutional racism in local government, Quiller, a retired federal employee and husband to Bryan NAACP president Johnnie Quiller, said it’s there, at least covertly.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is realize we have it,” he said. “As long as we don’t fully admit we have it, in my view, there is absolutely no way we can get rid of it.”
Panelists also discussed policing, including the use of body cams and dash cams – both departments have and use them as a safeguard – use of force policies and whether the chiefs believe police should be “demilitarized.”
Shores said much of the equipment now used by police evolved from bank robberies in Los Angeles in the 1990s when police were outgunned. He said it’s also a way to ensure officer safety.
“If we’re going to ask our officers to risk their lives, we have a responsibility to protect them,” he said.
Collins agreed, and added: “What some people don’t understand, is if there’s an active shooter at one of our schools, you want us to have the very best tactical training we can have because those are your kids at risk.” But, like all the panelists, Collins said there was work to be done to ensure better relations between residents and those sworn to serve them. “Like every community, I think we’ve got some growing to do,” he said. “This is a good first step.”
Both chiefs were hesitant to endorse the idea of a police review board, and said any time an officer uses force the incident is reported on a separate document and reviewed.
“I think it’s important that things be in writing,” Shores said, then read aloud from an RHPD policy: “Police officers shall treat all persons with the humanity, courtesy and dignity due any human being,” he said. “When you put it in writing and hold people accountable to it, it makes it a little more real.”
Stephens, who was asked about the hate crime bill recently passed in the state legislature, said legislators heard “loud and clear” that it was time to address the issue of race. He cited the legacy of former Gov. Eugene Talmadge, an ardent segregationist, as an example of putting the past in the past.
“I believe we need to remove some of this stuff, but by the same token we can’t whitewash history,” Stephens said, adding that the state’s effort to protect historical markers is “to make sure not they’re not subject to political whim one way or the other by local governments.”
The NAACP will host a second conversation at 11 a.m. Sept. 19, Johnnie Quiller said.