The Tennessee Historical Commission held its first hearing Thursday on a request from the Williamson County Commission to alter the county seal, which bears the image of a Confederate battle flag.
The seal has faced renewed scrutiny this past year following the killing of George Floyd and associated protests.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin sparked a wave of protests across the world in the summer of 2020, and Williamson County was no exception. The protests also saw renewed discussions about race and police brutality, and in June 2020, increased pressure was placed on Williamson County commissioners to consider altering the county seal, which bears the image of a Confederate flag draped across a cannon.
The timing of the seal's adoption was a major focal point among its critics, having been put in place just two months after the assassination of Martin Luthor King Jr. in Tennessee. Studies show that erections of public displays of Confederate symbols skyrocketed during the Civil Rights movement, with similar spikes appearing to correlate with shifts in the advancement of Black Americans.
The Williamson County Commission eventually commissioned a task force to evaluate the merits of altering the county seal to remove the Confederate flag. That task force produced a report recommending the seal be altered, with the County Commission voting to approve the recommendation in a 16-7 vote.
Given that the seal is protected from alteration by state law, the County Commission would require a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission. On Thursday, that commission addressed the waiver request during a virtual meeting.
Public comments call for seal's removal
The sole purpose of the initial hearing over the request to alter the county seal was to determine which entities, groups or individuals should be given written notice as to the petition request to have the seal altered.
Vice President of Spiritual Development at Belmont University Todd Lake was given the floor to make a public comment during the hearing, and argued that the scope of who should be notified of the petition should be expanded far beyond what had been suggested by the Williamson County Commission.
"12,000 people were enslaved in Williamson County during the Civil War, their decedents are certainly interested parties in receiving notice of this waiver petition," Lake said.
"Alexander [Hamilton] Stevens, the vice president of the newly formed [Confederate States of America] said, 'our new government's cornerstone rests upon the great truth that slavery is the negro's natural and normal condition.' Williamson County and its seal honors the flag of those who would have kept these Williamson County individuals and their descendants in slavery forever."
The Klu Klux Klan [KKK] has a long and storied history in Williamson County, having lynched William Guthrie, a Black resident of Franklin, in 1868 after being accused of raping a White woman. Held at the Williamson County jail in Franklin, Guthrie was ordered to be transported to Davidson County.
Before his transfer, however, Guthrie was taken from the jailhouse on July 17 by a local mob and lynched on the balcony of the Franklin Courthouse. His body was discovered on Spring Hill Pike the next day.
"After the Civil War, the KKK blossomed in Williamson County," Lake continued.
"One recently discovered manual had each member swear that 'all negros shall forever be my enemy, I will welcome them with bloody hands to hospitable graves.' The Williamson County seal bears the flag most closely associated with the KKK. All African Americans and all Whites of goodwill who have lived in Williamson County with this flag on over 400 county vehicles and flying overhead on the Williamson County flag are stakeholders."
Learotha Williams, a Nashville resident and professor at Tennessee State University, also spoke during the public comment section of the hearing, and relayed his support of removing the Confederate flag from the Williamson County seal.
"I'm a representative of the people who were victimized by this flag... although I'm not connected to Tennessee, my relatives in Georgia were massacred in  in Camilla, Georgia, for trying to vote," Williams said.
"As you might imagine, coming to Williamson County and interacting with people there that I love, seeing that flag on your seal is both obnoxious to me, and it says something very negative about the people and what they represent."
Williams recalled a report read in 1868 by the 35th Tennessee General Assembly that covered the massacres committed by members of the KKK. Williams said that many of those violent acts included in the report were carried out by those who proudly flew the Confederate flag, and that to preserve the flag on the Williamson County seal would be "an attack on [Williamson County residents'] humanity."
"Although I'm not a representative of Williamson County, there are people in Williamson County that I love dearly, and I see this symbol in your seal as an affront to them, an attack on their humanity," Williams said.
Tennessee Historical Commission member Sam Elliott said that while he understood what Lake was trying to accomplish by expanding the scope of who should be notified of the petition to alter the county seal, the "practicality of identifying those people [was] problematic."
Instead, Elliott made a motion to have the Williamson County government website advertise the petition, while also advertising the petition in local newspapers.
Elliott's motion was approved unanimously.
The actual vote by the Commission as to whether they will grant Williamson County the waiver needed to alter the county seal will be "scheduled at a later meeting," according to Commission Chair Derita Williams.