To the editor,
My family was the largest slaveholders in Williamson County. In 1838, my ancestors, the Perkins family, owned 256 slaves at Meeting of the Waters plantation on Del Rio Pike, a few miles from where I live now. As a ninth-generation Franklin resident, Williamson County educator and father of six, I am compelled to publicly state that my family was wrong.
Accordingly, slavery flourished in Williamson County since its inception in the late 1790s. When the Confederacy was defeated and the 13th Amendment ratified in 1865, slavery was no longer legal in our city, county and across the nation. After Reconstruction, once federal troops were out of the South and Northern political leaders turned their attention away from the defeated states, the new leaders of the South, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers, responded by placing statues of themselves and other nameless Confederate soldiers in the centers of their towns.
The whites in power reminded the former slaves of their place by perpetuating the myth of the “lost cause.” Romantic images and stories (e.g. “Gone With the Wind”) began to be told and written of a time when Southern belles would sit on their antebellum porches sipping tea while their slaves would contentedly serve them. All of this was meant to create a narrative, albeit a false one, of an idyllic South, a place where blacks accepted their position beneath the white man.
During this Jim Crow era, white citizens dusted off their Confederate battle flags and displayed them in places of prominence as a reminder to all of the “good ol’ days.”
Of course, our very own Confederate statue was erected in 1899, uncoincidentally just three years after the landmark Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson that made separate-but-equal accommodations for the races constitutional and would cement in stone Jim Crow segregation.
It is also surely not a coincidence that the local Ku Klux Klan headquarters was located on the southeast corner of Franklin’s public square — where Mellow Mushroom now sits in the side gaze of “Chip” — the nickname of the monument to a Confederate soldier. If this seems innocuous to you, you may want to remember that from 1885 to 1915, the KKK lynched over 3,000 African Americans nationwide, including five — Jim Walker, Calvin Beatty, John Thomas, Amos Miller and Jim Taylor — right here in Williamson County.
African Americans would continue to live as second-class citizens for over the next 50 years. Miniscule changes would start to come during in the post-WWII years that would prove to be preparation for more rapid expansion of opportunities for black people.
The civil rights movement brought incremental reforms, including the integration of schools and public institutions for our African American citizens. While Franklin would begin to grow into a prosperous community that would be the envy of small towns throughout the country, so would the festering wounds of racism and white supremacy grow into a subtler form.
When I was growing up here throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, I remember playing with my friends in and around the Confederate cemetery at Carnton Plantation, where my grandmother worked as a guide for many years. I can remember going to Franklin High School football games as a child, where fans would wave Confederate flags and the team’s helmets depicted their mascot, a Confederate rebel.
I have known, along with the majority of Americans, that slavery was wrong but also that along with it, Jim Crow segregation, the second-class citizenship of African Americans, and the eras that followed, often marked by violence and disenfranchisement of blacks, were not only wrong, but evil!
Yet many of our institutions and systems still wreak from the stench of systemic racism. Alexander Stevens, vice president of the Confederacy in his famous Cornerstone speech, proclaimed, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas (that “all men are created equal”); its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, is our new government.”
And somehow, the Confederate statue still stands, towering over its residents in the most prominent place in our community. The Confederate flag on the very seal of Williamson County government continues to wave today as a startling reminder of the oppression of a significant portion of its people. These symbols in our public spaces represent the ideals of Alexander Stevens, not our Tennessee heritage. They represent involuntary servitude, second-class citizenship, racism, shame and violence. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history.
I call on our city to remove the Confederate monument from its present place on the town square and replace it with a symbol that more accurately represents who our city is as a whole.
In addition, the Confederate flag has no place on the crest representing Williamson County, and I call on our community leaders to replace it with a more inclusive symbol on the quadrant representing the heritage and history of our county.
In conclusion, I understand the removal of these symbols will sting for some in our community for a time. However, joy will come in the morning because a town at peace with itself, a city that exists for the common good of all of her residents, is a city where we all long to live.
For Franklin to truly be a more just, whole, loving and equitable community, this action by our town and county leaders would be a giant step toward that end.
Brad Perry is a local history teacher and one of the co-founders of The Public, a racial justice focused organization created to educate, advocate and act on behalf and for the residents of Franklin.