Documents requested by Talk Business & Politics show that Sebastian County and Fort Smith officials are making plans to talk later this month about the future of a Confederate statue on the grounds of the Sebastian County courthouse.
The discussion on whether to move a Confederate monument that has sat on the lawn surrounding the Sebastian County courthouse in Fort Smith for 117 years has sparked civil and not some civil discourse among the residents of the county and Fort Smith as passions flare in supporters on both sides the issue. By Monday (June 15) 3,625 had signed a petition started on change.org around the first of June calling for statue to be removed from the grounds of the courthouse.
The petition 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.”
A counter petition, started on change.org June 9, had garnered 2,472 signatures by the same time Monday. The petition says the statue represents a part of American history that can be used by all to learn and thus should stay where it is.
“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.”
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.
On June 1, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken sent a memo to Sebastian County Judge David Hudson asking if “now is the time to move the monument at the County Courthouse to the National Cemetery.” The note followed a June 1 agreement between the Arkansas Division United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Benton County Historical Society to relocated a Confederate soldier statue on the Bentonville square. That 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 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 statue is set to be relocated near his gravesite.
Hudson responded to Geffken’s memo via email saying, “Carl, I will call you later to discuss the background on this land.” Hudson’s notes on the statue said he wanted to look into the agreement for the land between the city and the county in 2004. In minutes for the regular meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors from Oct. 19, 2009, a resolution was passed to transfer the land to the county.
Some back and forth followed between Hudson and Geffken in early June concerning suggested dates for a meeting. Geffken wrote an email to Hudson June 10 asking if the judge would contact his secretary regarding setting a meeting between Geffken, Hudson and Fort Smith Mayor George McGill to discuss the monument.
“If you think we don’t need to meet, that’s fine, but the mayor and I want to help. We have some options for the monument,” Geffken’s email noted.
Fort Smith Attorney Joey McCutchen, who represented UDC in the negotiations for the Bentonville statue, said no one has approached the UDC about starting a dialogue about moving the statue but that he and the UDC are open to respectful and cordial discourse on moving it and that there is opportunity for a compromise.
McGill, Fort Smith’s first black mayor, said efforts by area residents on both sides of the issue show they are exercising their rights under the constitution.
“This is a part of civil discourse, a lost art that should be practiced regularly. We are watching democracy at work, citizens are finding, meaningful and effective ways to participate in the decision-making processes and the actions that affect them in their city,” McGill said.
Fort Smith City Director André Good said what he is hearing, and what he agrees with, is the monument needs to be off the courthouse property.
“It can be moved to a museum or something of the nature. My understanding (of) the original request was to have it placed in a cemetery but that request was denied. Move it there. Wherever it is moved, when and if it’s displayed, it should be accompanied by a narrative that explains why it is where it is. Historical context is important, but so is the area and the message being conveyed to those who see it. Personally I don’t feel that I’d receive justice or equal and fair treatment at a courthouse that boasts such a monument,” Good said.
City Director Robyn Dawson agrees that the historical context of the monument is important and those historical lessons cannot be forgotten. She believes the nearby U.S. National Cemetery is a more appropriate site for the statue, or possibly Oak Cemetery, which the city owns.
“There is a famous quote by George Santayana that says, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The Confederate monument is a symbol of history and a time that was heinous for people of color. It is important, however, that those times are not forgotten so that we, as a new generation, never forget, lest we repeat it,” Dawson said.
There are other reasons to remove the monument and the flag from the courthouse though, Good said, noting economic incentives and the safety of the community.
“Ultimately the perception of Fort Smith will be defined, and we should do what is best for the future of our city; the business side as well as the generations of her residents,” Good said.