PHOTO: Pastor Kevin Riggs (from left), Pastor Hewitt Sawyers, Battle of Franklin Trust CEO Eric Jacobson and Dr. Chris Williamson were all smiles after presenting a proposal about historic markers to the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen last August. But Riggs and Williamson met with a little pushback at Tuesday’s work session. / File photo
By JOHN McBRYDE
Two of the organizers of the “fuller story” received what appeared to be unexpected pushback when they presented an update of the plan during the work session of the Franklin Board of Mayor and Aldermen Tuesday night.
Franklin Community Church Pastor Kevin Riggs and Strong Tower Baptist Church Dr. Chris Williamson worked with others to create a plan that would include the placement of historical markers on the Franklin town square that would add perspective on the experience of African-Americans during the Civil War. On Tuesday night, they shared progress of the project with aldermen and others assembled in the City Hall auditorium.
A similar update was given during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day service Monday at First Missionary Baptist Church in Franklin, and the fuller story has generally received solid support from the whole community since it was publicly announced last August.
In fact, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted unanimously in September to approve the concept of the project, even in the face of a challenge from the Franklin Chapter 14 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy over ownership of the square. The case is currently held up in court until a judge makes a decision on who owns the land in the middle of the roundabout, the UDC or the city of Franklin.
The markers will tell the stories of a former slave market on the square, a race riot, the era of Reconstruction and, in a revision from the original plan, the Confederate statue currently standing on the square. The plan also calls for a statue of a United States Colored Troops soldier to placed somewhere nearby.
But at BOMA’s work session Tuesday, there seemed to be a wave of disagreement toward placing the markers on the square where the statue nicknamed “Chip” resides. The trend began with Alderman Dana McLendon, 2nd Ward.
“I’m reluctant to put anything on the square that isn’t directly connected to people who fought then and there,” he said. “I’m happy to have markers around the square. I’m not hardened on this, but my inclination is to leave that as a monument to the people who fought and died here. That could include USCT troops if the facts are that they did. I’m not so sure that I’d be interested in putting [markers in the square about] riots, Reconstruction and other markers out in the square. We can accomplish the mission without doing that.”
Other aldermen echoed McLendon’s sentiment, including Alderman at Large Clyde Barnhill, Bev Burger, 1st Ward, and Margaret Martin, 4th Ward.
“I’m a little confused,” Riggs said, “because I get the impression, at least from some of the aldermen, that this is the first you’ve heard of where we’re wanting these markers to go.
“I do feel like the goal post has been moved on us,” he added.
Williamson said the plan would not only help with the unity of the community, but could also help prevent any vandalism of Chip.
“For some, the monument is a lightning rod of controversy,” he said. “In other cities where monuments were torn down, I doubt if they would have been torn down if there was equal representation in close proximity to the statue because of the scope of collective ownership from the community. So that was the plan for putting the markers around the statue, to protect our city from an uprising. … It was a way to be inclusive.”
Franklin City Administrator Eric Stuckey has worked with the fuller story group — which also includes Hewitt Sawyers of Harpeth Primitive Baptist Church and Battle of Franklin Trust CEO Eric Jacobson — from the outset. He said he’ll work with the team to bring back a more detailed plan at a future meeting, and also closed the discussion with an emotional statement about the UDC’s claim of ownership.
“Your actions and everything we’ve done for decades shows community ownership [of the town square property],” he said. “We never heard complaints for putting items there for certain festivals; when we put the Christmas tree there we never heard a complaint; when we put the gun carriages there, not a single word.
“But not until these markers are brought up is there this challenge [from the UDC]. So I think that tells you a lot of what you need to know about the nature of that challenge. And I want us to stand strong on what is ours.”