The City of Fort Smith has offered city-owned Oak Cemetery as the new home for a Confederate statue that has sat on the grounds of the Sebastian County Courthouse in Fort Smith for 117 years.
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, Fort Smith Mayor George McGill and City Administrator Carl Geffken have been in ongoing discussions with Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, who represents the United Daughters of the Confederacy, about the Confederate monument and potentially moving it from the courthouse grounds.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy is the owner and original sponsor of the historic monument¸ which was erected in 1903 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.
In July, after petitions both for and against moving the statue were started, Fort Smith offered to help Sebastian County find a home for the statue at Oak Cemetery, Geffken said. While some in the Fort Smith community say the Confederate statue is important to Fort Smith’s history, others say it is a painful reminder of the days of racial inequality, a press release from the city said.
“Moreover, examining the role of any private monument on public property raises its own set of questions and possible legal implications,” Geffken said.
During the discussions, the group reviewed the planning process that Benton County used to move a similar statue. Earlier this month, Benton County removed a Confederate statue (also owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy) from their town square. The Benton County proposal included plans to refurbish the statue before relocating the monument to a private park.
The Benton County planning efforts took more than a year to reach implementation and included money from the private sector, Hudson said. The Fort Smith plan will not use public funds to relocate the monument. Private funds will need to be raised for the project, the press release said.
“The City proposed Oak Cemetery as a possible future site for the historic monument, since Oak Cemetery is a historic cemetery and the resting place for many confederate veteran graves,” Geffken said. “The City only offered a new location as part of this proposal and did not offer to pay any relocation expenses to move the historic monument.”
To keep the process moving and begin estimating the amount of private funds needed, Geffken requested a preliminary cost estimate to relocate the statue. The cost estimate to remove the statue from the lawn at the county courthouse and move it to Oak Cemetery is $90,000, Geffken said, noting that estimate does not include prep work needed to site the monument at the cemetery.
McCutchen said the UDC is considering the proposal but needs guarantees from the city, such as that the group would own the land the statue sits on and where exactly it will be placed.
“This is a 30-acre cemetery, and for them to say we’re just going to move it to Oak Cemetery, well what is that location,” McCutchen said. “Is it on top of the hill or down near Old Greenwood Road? We need answers to that, and we haven’t been provided with those answers.”
McCutchen said the proposal seems like a win/win situation as long as the city makes investments to repair roads in the cemetery and fix drainage issues and guarantees better upkeep of the cemetery. McCutchen recently complained about the upkeep of the cemetery on Facebook.
“Oak Cemetery is owned by the City of Fort Smith. I have been to Oak Cemetery recently and have expressed my strong feelings of disappointment (and) disgust with the city concerning the lack of care. Is this the respect and dignity that deceased members of our community deserve? I don’t think so,” the post said.
The group has plans to meet next week to discuss the move and details of the plan as well as other available options, the press release said.