By BROOKE WANSER
Last Tuesday’s alderman forum gave candidates a chance to discuss the issues that face Franklin today.
It seemed fitting that the final question was about the future of the Confederate soldier in the town square. The audience gasped at the question, but the candidates were not surprised.
Candidate Mike Vaughn relayed a story from a recent time he spent cleaning tombstones at an African-American heritage site cemetery in town.
“Did you know that the only Medal of Honor winner from Williamson County was a buffalo soldier named Mr. George Jordan?” Vaughn asked the audience. “That’s significant. I think that we need to promote more diversity in our heritage without compromising our heritage.”
Vaughn also pointed out that he’s a descendant from a Confederate colonel.
“I have the heritage of the Confederacy running through my own blood, but I think we oftentimes miss the opportunity to promote more cultural heritage that exists right here in Franklin.”
Alderman Mike Skinner pointed to the statue of an unnamed soldier in town square, referred to as “Chip,” as symbolic of a battle that shortened the war.
“The confederate statue on our square is part of the fabric of our history,” he said. “Because of the way that battle went, the war was shortened, the suffering was shortened.”
Skinner said the statue was erected in memory of those who died, and stands as a noble badge of their suffering today.
“Can we tell more stories about that period?” he asked. “Yes.”
The question didn’t shock those who have been following the national discourse about the fate of Confederate war monuments. After a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly on Aug. 12, several Franklin residents gathered in town square for a peaceful rally in solidarity.
In the days after the violence at Charlottesville, online petitions began to circulate; one to remove Chip, and another to save him.
“We believe that this monument no longer represents the ideals and values that we uphold as a community,” the Change.org petition named “Remove the Confederate Monument in Franklin, Tennessee,” read. “Remembrance is important, but a monument celebrating those who would hold others in bondage is inappropriate,” the petition continues. 1,351 people have signed the petition so far.
On the other side, “Help us Save Chip and Franklin’s Civil War history” has 3,940 supporters on Change.org. “Affectionately called ‘Chip,’ the Confederate monument on the square in Franklin, Tenn., has stood as a beautiful symbol of history since 1899,” the petition reads. “The statue and land beneath it are owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, so that it cannot be moved by any government.”
The latter is somewhat true; though it is legally difficult to prove who the monument belongs to, it is widely opined that the monument belongs to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were responsible for the statue’s erection on the anniversary of the November 30 Battle of Franklin 1899. However, the monument sits on public land.
“It’s a crossroads of public streets, it used to be the county courthouse at one point, so it’s a little murky in terms of that element, but it is clearly public land,” City Administrator Eric Stuckey said.
According to the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, which was passed in 2013 and amended in 2016, “no memorial regarding a historical conflict, historical entity, historic event, historical figure, or historic organization that is, or is located on, public property, may be removed, renamed, relocated, altered, rededicated, or otherwise disturbed or altered.”
There is a provision which allows for the Tennessee Heritage Committee to petition for a waiver of prohibition by a public entity, but it seems unlikely to occur. Stuckey said he didn’t believe the petition to remove Chip had even been presented to Mayor Ken Moore.
“It’s obviously an icon in the community, but this community has worked very, very hard over many years to represent and tell the whole story of the war,” Stuckey said. “Not only the war but how it shaped our community and our country now.”
Stuckey said part of the display, the Union cannon’s carriages, are exact replicas of ones used during the Civil War. The city installed the carriages only a few years ago in an effort to seek historical accuracy.
He believes the statue means different things to different people.
“We’re trying to be understanding of that and understand how we can better tell the whole story for everyone who was impacted,” Stuckey said.
Developer and Franklin resident Roderick Heller said, “I wasn’t surprised, it’s such a topical issue.”
Though he spent much of his life working as an attorney and executive in Washington, D.C., Heller’s life and personal history are rooted in Franklin. He’s the great-great grandson of Carnton Plantation’s Carrie McGavock, and has invested in historical preservation in Franklin since purchasing a home near Carnton in 2007.
Heller said he thinks the notion of tearing down statues should be determined on a case-by-case basis. He does not support the idea of taking down the statue of Chip in the square.
“I think the common issue is a minor part of a much broader dialogue,” he noted.
At the forum, Alderman Margaret Martin said she believed the statue in the square is exactly where it belongs, and pointed to the Union cannons, which she said are a sign of reconciliation.
“It does not honor a person, but all the men who died in that horrible war,” she said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with hatred and slavery, simply the grief that was felt all over the United States.”
Former County Commissioner Mary Mills, a founder of Franklin’s African-American Heritage Society, said she wasn’t personally bothered by the statue, as long as the city promotes the truth of the past.
“For a long time, I really didn’t pay any attention. I looked up there and I saw it, and I thought, ‘you know that’s a part of history and we’re not going to get rid of it,’” she said. “Everybody knows we’re not going to get rid of slavery, we never will, so we try to learn from it.”
Though she said she doesn’t mind the statue, if given the choice, she would rather see “somebody like Mary McLeod [Bethune], Frederick Douglass.”
“I just want to see something that’s going to draw the people together, I don’t want to see anything that’s going to divide us,” she said.