Competing petitions seek to remove, retain Confederate statue at Sebastian County courthouse

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,638 views 

Part of the base of the Confederate monument on the grounds of the Sebastian County Courthouse.

Those on both sides of the issue of whether a Confederate monument should continue to stand on the grounds of the Sebastian County Courthouse have launched petitions, each hoping their voice will be the loudest.

Danielle Hoopes of Fort Smith began her petition the first week of June that calls for the removal of the statue from its location at the courthouse.

The Fort Smith Confederate Monument was erected in 1903 at the Sebastian County Courthouse in Fort Smith by the Varina Jefferson Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to commemorate local men who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War and to honor the Confederates buried in the U.S. National Cemetery in Fort Smith, where it was originally intended to be placed.

“Among several markers on the courthouse grounds is a statue of a Confederate soldier, on top of a pedestal nearly three stories tall that stands with its back toward a national cemetery a few blocks away from where it was originally planned to stand. The United States Secretary of War at the time refused to consent to the words ‘Lest we forget.’ The Confederate veterans and citizens who raised funds to erect the monument would not agree to the omission, and the statue was placed on the courthouse lawn,” according to information on the Arkansas Municipal League website.

Hoope said she started the petition with the hopes to continue good work that has been done in Fort Smith to improve the city’s image.

“There is a lot of history here as we know, and when you take it in in its entirety, you see that there is much more to the story of the group that put it there and their belief system. As it sits now in such a prominent, public place, it is revered in a much different way than was originally intended. It is time to put it in a place where it can be used as a teaching tool instead of an idol,” Hoopes said.

The petition, which had 2,216 signatures as of Thursday (June 11) evening, states that the statue was “erected as a political statement in the time of Jim Crow.” It says Fort Smith citizens want to see the city welcome all people and the statue is a “clear and present ode to the values of the Confederacy that we do not share.” Removing the statue, the petition states, will send the message that the citizens of the city do not “in any way, support racial and societal divides.”

Another group of Fort Smith residents want the statue to stay where it has stood for 117 years. Mike Ferstl started a petition June 9 with the goal to keep the monument at the courthouse. The petition, which had 955 signatures by Thursday evening, says the statue represents a part of American history that can be used by all to learn.

“Moving it would only accomplish satisfying a knee jerk reaction from a small part of our citizenship and (would) incur a hefty price tag and risk of damage.”

Ferstl said this is no longer a time in which capital punishment by hanging is used, but residents would not consider removing Judge Isaac Parker’s gallows at the U.S. National Historic Site or the new statue of him at Gateway Park.

“I think at some point, people have to just say enough is enough and stop being offended,” Ferstl said. “Prostitution offends almost everyone, yet (Fort Smith’s) visitor center is one of the most famous brothels in the state. Should that also be removed? Absolutely not! We have to learn from the past, not erase it.”

An agreement announced June 1 between the Arkansas Division United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Benton County Historical Society, a Confederate soldier statue on the Bentonville square will move to a park that will be named James H. Berry Park with the process beginning in August. That controversial statue was placed on the Bentonville square in 1908 and was mistakenly considered by some as a statue of former Arkansas Gov. James Berry who took office in 1882. The statue is not of Berry, but is a common statue that is seen in many city squares and on courthouse lawns in the South. Berry helped pay for the statue, and a small plaque upon it in his honor following his death in 1913. Berry is buried in the Bentonville cemetery.

“The process to relocate the monument will begin in August after the UDC submits an application under the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program to maintain the monument on the National Registry of Historic Places,” noted a statement from Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who represented UDC.

McCutchen said the Sebastian County statue was placed in its location with an ordinance in 1903. Through that ordinance and many legal documents afterwards, the monument and UDC were granted perpetual use of that ground for that purpose.

“Just because someone decides they don’t want it there, doesn’t mean it can just be removed,” McCutchen said.

He also said that no one has approached the UDC about starting a dialogue about moving the statue. Instead petitioners for its removal have used language he said is hateful, vitriolic and accusatory. The removal petition states that the Confederacy’s “secession from our United States in order to keep their right to own human beings as slaves is a treasonous act that we cannot abide.”

McCutchen said he and the UDC are open to respectful and cordial discourse on moving the statue and there is the opportunity for a compromise.

“Look at what we were able to accomplish in Bentonville. We were in conversations for over a year and came to an agreement. The UDC has shown what could happen with cordial conversation.”

McCutchen said politicians removing statues in the middle of the night, defacing monuments or causing other damage is wrong and does not accomplish anything positive.

“We cannot just remove our history. We need to learn from it,” McCutchen said. “No one today supports slavery. Certainly today, we all see that it is wrong.”

Hoope said supporters of removing the statue are researching and requesting the appropriate documents to determine how to proceed. She also said they would like to see a diplomatic solution to the issue and welcome the same type of compromise as was reached in Bentonville.

“The goal is to find a solution where everyone in Fort Smith can feel heard,” Hoope said.