On Monday, the Washington County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to work with the Greenville Historic Preservation committee in the relocation of the Confederate statue on the Washington County Courthouse grounds to another county site at the expense of the county.
The motion was made by District 4 supervisor Mala Brooks and seconded by District 2 supervisor Tommy Benson.
District 1 supervisor Lee Gordon voted in opposition to the motion.
The consideration for removal came after a letter submitted by Mayor Errick Simmons to the BOS requesting the removal of the Confederate statue on the grounds of the Washington County Courthouse on Thursday.
“As you know, racism in America is real,” Simmons asserted in his letter, “We have to face it and address it head on. It exists in Washington County. It exists in the Mississippi Delta...I firmly believe that it continues to exist because of people, systems and symbols.”
Each supervisor provided their thoughts on the matter as well as some Washington County residents who were in attendance.
District 1 supervisor said after talking with different people about what their feelings are in regards to the statue, which varied from feelings of indifference to offense, he went back to research what Mississippi law says about removing the statue.
Gordon said based on what he read about the state law as it pertains to such monuments, “It can’t be removed unless it was moved to a (county) site that’s more visible,” noting he couldn’t recall the exact wording.
“We are a county, a state and a country of laws and I know that tensions are high right now, but we still need to do things in proper order if it’s going to be taken down,” he said.
District 3 supervisor Tommy Benson said he respected what Gordon had to say and that the statue means different things to different people.
“It certainly means something to me,” Benson said, “It is, to me, offensive, if you asked me personally and I think the time has come to find the appropriate place like a museum or somewhere else. But to allow it to stand in our county seat on that property, I believe the time for that is up.”
District 4 supervisor Mala Brooks agreed and said she, too, had talked to residents of different races across Washington County and many expressed to her they are ready to see the statue come down.
“It is history and I do think we should never forget about history...I would like to see if we could donate it to the Greenville Historic Preservation Committee,” she said.
District 5 supervisor Jerry Redmon yielded (and) said he would like to see it done the legal way and yielded to BOS attorney Willie Griffin.
Griffin cited when the statue was erected and it’s purchase by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
“After the flag issue arose in 2001, the Republicans took over the legislature and in 2004 they passed a bill called the War Memorial Protection Act. That act was designed to preserve and protect these statues,” Griffin explained, noting the act prevents a board of supervisors from removing the statue from the jurisdiction of the BOS.
Griffin added there is another provision which allows for moving such a statue to a location deemed more suitable if it is determined that the location is more appropriate to displaying the monument.
Washington County resident Mr. Marks was heard from as he shared what he researched about the legality of removing the statue and cited MS Code 55-15-81.
Marks noted the monument is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“It would be a shame to remove an object that has national significance,” he said. “To me it has a special significance; it signifies what a great country we live in where we can have different citizens and beliefs and be safe in our homes and understand we are all different.”
Tommy Tatum asked the BOS, “Where are we going to draw the line?” adding, “We’re seeing a national insurrection in this country right now chipping away at our American beliefs.”
Tatum went on to say the American flag is actually what flew over the country while slavery was legal, not the Confederate flag, never.
Greenville resident Tasha Parks said the monument is a symbol of hate.
“It’s offensive and it’s painful to see,” she said. “People come to this town all of the time and it’s sad to say that Mississippi is still where we are and in 2020 we still have so many symbols of hate. It perpetuates the problem that we still have to deal with these things in 2020.”
Attorney Darnell Pratt said he thinks it is extremely disingenuous to say that people don’t know the statue is there.
“There are conversations I’ve had with fellow attorneys and fellow African Americans that I work in the county with and when we report to the courthouse, we have to see that statue,” he said.
Pratt added the statue serves as a reminder of not only the hate toward black people in the Civil War, but also the oppression that black people faced after the Civil War and going to the courthouse during Jim Crow.
“Everything that statue stands for, it denotes hate, it denotes oppression,” attorney Ashley Harris said. “That’s a part of history I don’t want to be reminded of.”
“That’s a lie,” Tatum bursted out as Harris said, “Now is the time for our nation to make a stand; we are seeing black men gunned down on a daily basis for nothing.”
Tatum quickly apologized to the BOS for his interruption.
Harris continued, "I think now is the time for our candidates to take a stand and say 'Hey, we're against racism.' It may be a small change, but the change starts with us."
Drew Newsom spoke on behalf of the Greenville Historic Preservation Committee and said the committee just wants to preserve history.
“We certainly would not like to see the statue destroyed or harmed in any way. We’d like to be a part of this process in any way that we can,” he told the board.
Newsom inquired of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History about the removal of the statue.
Director of the Historic Preservation Committee, Barry White, responded to the inquiry, part of which said, “Under provisions of the Antiquities Law of Mississippi, because the monument is publicly owned and part of a designated Mississippi Landmark property, a permit from the Board of Trustees of MDAH is required prior to any alterations that would affect its historic character.”
White’s response said in addition, “The property owner must submit a Notice of Intent—including detailed plans and specifications for the alteration—to MDAH staff who will review the project to ensure it meets the Secretary of the Interior’s (SOI) Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. If the project meets the SOI Standards, staff will recommend that the Board of Trustees of MDAH vote to approve a Mississippi Landmark permit for the proposed project. If the project does not meet the SOI Standards, staff may request additional information or recommend changes to the scope of work.”