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Debate over Franklin Public Square ownership could soon be settled

Settlement approved to recognize UDC as owner of land beneath monument

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Franklin Square Confederate Monument

The monument in downtown Franklin that honors Confederate soldiers was installed in the middle of Public Square in 1899 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

After nearly two years of debate and legal battles, the controversy over who owns the Franklin Public Square and the land on which the Confederate monument, locally known as “Chip,” sits is coming to a close.

The Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, following an executive session Tuesday night, approved a draft settlement 8-0 which would recognize the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s (UDC) ownership of the ground directly beneath the monument on the square.

“I know this matter has received considerable attention in the community,” said Dana McLendon, Franklin's vice mayor and ward 2 alderman, during the session. “The essential terms of the settlement agreement are that the square in Franklin will maintain its status quo. The UDC … will receive a deed for the monument and the dirt beneath it, and the square will continue to look and function as it has for many, many years.”

Controversy began with the Fuller Story 

In August of 2018, Doug Jones, the counsel for the Franklin chapter of the UDC, addressed the Franklin board during a work session, sharing that historic markers as part of the Fuller Story initiative should not be placed in the square because the land is owned by the Franklin UDC. According to the city, Jones, on behalf of the Franklin UDC, threatened to sue the city if these markers were placed in the square, an allegation the UDC denies and deems irrelevant per its response to the city’s official complaint.

The Fuller Story initiative was created by three local pastors — Hewitt Sawyers, Chris Williamson and Kevin Riggs — and historian and Battle of Franklin Trust CEO Eric Jacobson in collaboration with the community and the city of Franklin.

The initiative set out to install four markers explaining the experience of African American people during the Civil War, a fifth marker describing the Battle of Franklin and a U.S. Colored Troop statue to be installed across from the square in front of the historic Williamson County Courthouse.

When Jones addressed the city in 2018, he said the Franklin UDC was in favor of the Fuller Story’s mission but wants the markers to be installed at the Carter House instead of the square. Following Jones’ address, the city of Franklin filed a lawsuit requesting a declaratory judgment from the chancery court regarding ownership of the land.

The Franklin UDC claimed ownership of the square, citing the minutes from a Williamson County Quarterly Court session in 1899, which state that the UDC be granted “a deed to a square of ground in the center of the Public Square in Franklin of such dimensions as may be needed for the purpose” of erecting the monument. There is no record that a deed was ever issued or filed.

On Oct. 1, 2018, the city of Franklin filed an offer of judgment, offering to resolve the lawsuit by agreeing that the court could recognize the UDC ownership of the ground below the monument and the pavers directly surrounding the monument, not including the grassy area. The offer became void after the UDC did not accept.

The city filed another offer of judgment on Oct. 15, 2019, two days before the five historic markers were unveiled around the square, with the same terms. This offer also became void. 

The square revisited after George Floyd’s death 

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, people throughout the U.S. turned their attention to the many Confederate monuments throughout the nation, including Chip.

Last month, a Franklin resident created an online petition calling for the monument’s removal from the square, which has obtained over 10,000 signatures. Some signatories called for Chip to be moved to a cemetery. Some suggested a museum. Others recommended Carnton.

“As the CEO of the Battle of Franklin Trust, I think the suggestion that it should just be moved to Carnton or the cemetery is extremely presumptuous because you would actually have to have a conversation with us about that,” Jacobson said.

Prior to the board’s latest vote on the offer of judgment, the city filed an amendment to its original complaint on June 12 calling for a declaratory judgement. The complaint states that the city “has acted as though it owns the Public Square, except for the monument and the footprint of the ground upon which it sits since at least the 1980’s, and several years before,” stating that the Franklin UDC has never “asserted ownership” or “claimed trespass” during festivals downtown, for which the city has issued special event permits, or during various streetscape and maintenance projects the city has undertaken.

The complaint also states that, “upon information and belief, the UDC has never paid taxes for the footprint of the land upon which the monument stands” or “for any land surrounding the monument in the Public Square,” claiming that the city “has therefore acquired the land surrounding the monument and the footprint of land upon which the monument stands by adverse possession, and is entitled to have title to those lands quieted in itself forevermore.”

On Monday, Jones, on behalf of the Franklin UDC, filed a response to the complaint, refuting various claims by the city and asking the court to “declare that the Confederate Monument and the areas around it including the full extent of the Confederate Park (the grassy area surrounding the monument) are owned by” the Franklin UDC.

‘It’s a compromise’ 

During the city meeting on Tuesday, the Franklin board voted to approve a draft settlement agreement to recognize UDC's ownership of the statue and its footprint, as well as the city’s ownership of the remainder of the square.

“We met last night in executive session, which is the private meeting between us and our attorney, to discuss this City of Franklin v. UDC litigation,” McLendon said on social media Wednesday. “We got an update on the case, advice from our attorney, and we were able to ask questions. When that was over, we returned to the public meeting. I then made the motion to accept the settlement agreement that has been negotiated between the parties.”

City Administrator Eric Stuckey said the terms of this settlement are similar to those proposed in the city’s offer of judgment in late 2018. He also said the vote on Tuesday does not mean the city suddenly changed its position.

“It’s really looking at what the basic facts are of the case and what action Williamson County took at that time related to land that they owned,” Stuckey said, adding about the minutes from the 1899 court session: “Those are unique facts to this case that are really indisputable, so we have to deal with that.”

McLendon told the Williamson Herald that the approval of the settlement is not his “favorite outcome.” He added on social media that “moral and political goals don’t always line up neatly with what’s happening in a lawsuit” and that the city cannot initiate an effort to remove the Confederate statue unless it owns the ground beneath the monument.

“That is far from a foregone conclusion if we litigated the question,” he said. “The worst case scenario if we litigated this case to conclusion and lost is that the UDC has a deed to at least the monument area, maybe more, and they have no restrictions on its use. Picture confederate flags next to the monument and possibly even the removal of the Fuller story markers recently placed.”

He said this settlement, by only recognizing ownership of the ground directly underneath the monument, prohibits any additional objects from being placed in the square by the Franklin UDC.

“It’s a compromise, and compromises are seldom perfect,” he said.

McLendon and Stuckey both shared they intend to continue supporting the Fuller Story initiative, the team for which plans to unveil the U.S. Colored Troop statue around Juneteenth of next year.

“I wish that people would remember that the same people who voted last night to resolve this lawsuit are the same people who voted eight to nothing to approve the Fuller Story markers and the United States Colored Troop statue,” McLendon said. “People seem to have forgotten that.”

Following the city’s approval, the court must also approve the settlement.

The Williamson Herald reached out to the Franklin UDC, who have declined to comment at this time. The Herald also asked the city whether property taxes will be recovered from the UDC — the response: "That has not come up as a specific topic."

For more information about the Fuller Story and the city of Franklin, visit FranklinTN.gov.

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