Amid national conversations about race, justice and history, some local residents have begun to address symbols of the Confederacy throughout Williamson County, particularly focusing on the Confederate flag in the Williamson County seal, although the Confederate monument in Franklin's historic Public Square is certainly not excluded from the discussion.
Over the past several weeks, residents have been emailing their county commissioners to express their opinions on the matter, and while members of the community are speaking up, so are some commissioners.
The Williamson Herald reached out to all of the commissioners to obtain their views on the matter. Some shared their opinions, some refused comment and some said they are taking time to read emails from constituents, have conversations and ponder the subject.
District 6 Commissioner Erin Nations said she is not in favor of removing the Confederate flag from the seal, saying Civil War history draws visitors to Williamson County.
“People come to Franklin to teach their children about our nation’s history,” she said. “They are able to visit battlefields, museums and access an abundance of information and experiences about the Civil War. This is part of what makes Williamson County such an incredibly unique place, and I am not willing to be a part of the effort to erase that history.”
District 9 Commissioner Chas Morton said, to him, the issue is “clear-cut.”
“While the flag of the Confederacy has a place, it is not on the seal that represents all of Williamson County,” he said. “I have received emails from residents with strong feelings about keeping the seal as it is, but I simply cannot support or condone this as the representation of Williamson County’s history on its seal.”
During a commission meeting last week, District 3 Commissioner Jennifer Mason mentioned emails from her constituency calling for the alteration of the county seal, which features a Confederate flag and battle cannon in its upper-left quadrant. Williamson County Attorney Jeff Moseley said while the process of changing the seal would have to start in the commission, the county would have to receive state approval for any alterations.
The Tennessee Historical Commission, a 29-member board appointed by and including Gov. Bill Lee, would have to have a two-thirds majority vote in order to alter the seal. Final approval would then go through the Williamson County Commission.
Several recommendations, from removal of the Confederate flag to the addition of a Union flag or American flag or a completely redesigned seal, have been made.
Mason and District 5 Commissioner Beth Lothers said they would like to see a group of residents with diverse perspectives come together to discuss the issue.
“I’ve been talking with historians and locals since this issue has been raised,” Lothers said. “I think it could be useful to have a committee representing different points of view and generations come together and discuss this more deeply. There may be a consensus that emerges from that process.”
Mason added, “As a prosecuting attorney, my job is to listen to both sides of the story in order to reach a fair and just resolution. As a county commissioner, I view my job in much the same way.
“The Confederate flag on the county seal is an issue that deserves a conversation. I would fully support forming a committee made up of Williamson County residents with a wide array of backgrounds to discuss and generate ideas to present to the county commission.”
District 3 Commissioner Keith Hudson did not share any personal opinions on the matter, but he said it is possible that it will come to a vote because numerous constituents have been reaching out concerning the issue.
“I’ve been trying to read emails and see the opinions of different views,” he said.
Hudson said after last week’s commission meeting, commissioners began receiving emails from those wishing to keep the seal as is. District 4 Commissioner Gregg Lawrence said as of Friday, he had 20-30 emails on the subject, some for an alteration and some against.
Williamson County resident Inetta Gaines said she thinks it’s “past time” for the Confederate flag to be removed from the seal. She said the flag is a symbol of intimidation, violence, oppression and more.
“It’s been used by so many groups and people, and every time, pretty much, it’s been in such a negative and hateful way,” Gaines said.
For Robert Blythe, another Williamson County resident, he said he thinks the symbols should remain where they are because, if markers of history are taken down, it removes the opportunity for dialogue.
“As a father with two young girls, I want them to grow up to love history and show appreciation for history and the past — good and bad — so you can understand it,” he said. “When you start sanitizing everything … you lose a lot by doing that.”
Blythe said he appreciates the Fuller Story Initiative, which has involved the installation of markers around the Confederate monument in Public Square to tell the stories of African Americans during the Civil War and is in the funding process for the installation of a U.S. Colored Troop monument. Additionally, he said he fully endorses the addition of a Union flag or the American flag to the Williamson County seal; he just doesn’t want the Confederate flag removed in the process.
“My point is, where does it end?” Blythe said. “If people cave and try to appease, it’ll never work because … if somebody in the past was wrong, it’ll never end because everybody is imperfect, including the people that came before us. So, instead of learning from the past, we’re trying to sanitize everything, and I don’t think that’s a good thing at all.”
Gaines said she does not want to erase history, but she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for symbols of the Confederacy to be displayed on public property.
“We will repeat it if we forget it and set it aside. It’s not as if we’re trying to say that it never happened,” she said. “I don’t ever want to forget that it happened. I don’t want anyone to ever forget that it happened, but I don’t want to see nor do I think we need to see, as public citizens, it displayed on our county seal.”
She noted the seal was designed in 1968, “and we know everything that was going on in our nation in 1968.” Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Civil Rights Act had been recently passed and was enhanced by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
In addition to a Confederate flag and battle cannon, the seal, created by James Armistead and Virginia Bowman, features a lamp to represent education, a stained-glass window and Bible to represent religion and a cow and horse to represent agriculture.
“Since over 1,800 men from Williamson County joined the Confederate cause, Mr. Armistead and Mrs. Bowman apparently felt it was fair to use the Confederate flag as a symbol in the seal,” Williamson County historian Rick Warwick said. “Less than a hundred white males from the county served in the Union Army. However, new research indicates that over 300 black men from the county served as U.S. Colored Troops and the U.S. Navy.”
Warwick said he believes the seal is incomplete as it is, pointing out that the “U.S. Census indicates Williamson County had over 12,000 slaves and 11,000 white folks.”
“The seal would be complete today with a lone cannon and no flag,” he said. “If the battle flag must stay, the national flag should be added.”
Blythe said he feels like removing symbols and monuments is a slippery slope because, if the flag is removed from the seal, he believes the Bible would be next, and if the Confederate monument in the square was moved to a cemetery or private historical location such as a museum, Carnton or the Carter House — a few places Gaines recommended for relocation — they would just be removed from there later on or defaced by those who want the symbols destroyed.
Blythe said there is precedent for the permanent removal of symbols and monuments from public land and private land. Just recently, Confederate monuments previously on public land in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas have been moved to storage until they can be relocated to a private location.
Additionally, many other monuments and statues across the country have been defaced, torn down, or thrown into rivers by protesters. The Columbus Civil War Naval Museum in Georgia has been set on fire twice in the past month, and Confederate monuments and the United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters in Virginia were set on fire May 31.
Gaines said she believes the people who want these statues completely abolished are in the minority, noting that the minority does tend to be “who stirs up more of the negative side of it, to an extent, when you’re dealing with an issue.” She said there haven’t been any issues of defacement or vandalism recently in historical sites in Williamson County.
“I think it should be in its proper place, in context, and I don’t think anyone would try to deface it or anything if it were at Carnton or Carter,” she said. “I don’t think it should be destroyed.”