Is the Franklin Public Square owned by the public?
That’s what the Board of Mayor and Alderman voted Tuesday in executive session to clarify, after Doug Jones, lawyer for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, said the group owned not just the land that the statue of a Confederate soldier stands on the in the center of the square, but the entire square.
Franklin leaders will ask the city attorney to seek a declaratory judgment in federal district court on the matter.
“We have periodically had claims from the UDC that they own some of all of the square,” Alderman Dana McLendon said. “We need clarity and finality to this issue.”
The issue arose after a group of residents, including several African American clergymen, and historic preservationists both black and white, came up with a plan called “A Fuller Story.” It would involve placing historical markers around the square noting the one-time presence of a slave market on the square, the service of some 300 African Americans from Williamson County as Union soldiers, a race riot in 1867, and the effects of reconstruction and segregation on the city. A statue of a member of the U.S. Colored Troops somewhere in Franklin is part of the proposal.
Jones on Tuesday asked the Aldermen, who were favorable to the “Fuller Story” efforts, to slow down, and warned of potential litigation if the city allowed the markers on UDC property. He said the organization should have been in on the discussion since the beginning, and was open to talking with the other stakeholders.
How much of the square is United Daughters of the Confederacy property?
County Historian Rick Warwick quoted the Review-Appeal newspaper from April 6, 1899: “A resolution was passed empowering the County Judge to execute, in the name of Williamson County, a deed to a square, of such dimensions as may be needed to the Franklin Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy for the purpose of erecting a monument on the Public Square to the memory of the Confederate soldiers.” (The County Judge is the 1899 equivalent of the County Mayor today.)
Warwick also had evidence of a claim by the city of Franklin to the square by Mayor Park Marshall in 1920 in the Franklin, Tennessee Charter of Incorporation and By-laws and Ordinances. “The public square, being at first occupied by the courthouse and some other structures for county purposes, could well be said to fall under the orders of the County Court, but the county has abandoned such uses for more than 60 years, and has often disclaimed having any special claim or interest in it.”
The original Williamson County Courthouse stood in the middle of the square on a tract said by Mayor Marshall to be 1.35 acres.
Much of that is now occupied by the right of way for State Routes 31 and 96. What’s left is parking, sidewalks, and the round park space occupied by the statue surrounded by cannons.
Records on file in the Williamson County Property Assessor’s indicate that the city recognized the ownership of the park space as recently in 2010, when they sought an easement for the land in the middle of the square in order to perform maintenance, including grass cutting.
“Sounds like a legal matter for the court to answer,” Warwick said.