The issue of who is worthy of a public memorial or statue is being addressed across the nation, sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently.
In some cases, municipalities are moving statues to keep them safe or to remove a symbol some find offensive. Most of the targeted statues across the Southern United States are associated with slavery in some way – statues of people who owned or traded slaves.
“We shouldn’t erase history. We should face it,” says Louis Varnell, a former history teacher and Catoosa-based historian who says he has been talking about the issue of controversial monuments for years.
“As communities change, as our understanding of and feelings about some parts of history change, we have mechanisms in the United States to address these things, including referendums and laws,” he says.
The Civil War has left an indelible mark on the area, yet Ringgold and Fort Oglethorpe don’t have a whole lot in the way of controversial statues or memorials. Officials in those cities say they have not received any complaints about historic monuments.
Ringgold is home to the Confederate Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne statue and to a monument featuring text about the General, a locomotive that was commandeered by Union soldiers and chased 87 miles through north Georgia by Confederates.
Fort Oglethorpe is home to a number of streets named for Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, J.E.B. Stuart, Leonidas Polk and John Bell Hood.
Varnell says that when statues and monuments are violently destroyed, all it does is harden the feelings of people on both sides of the issue and close the door to fruitful discussions and legal ways of making changes.
“History is complicated,” says Varnell, who taught the subject in Memphis schools. “Sometimes it’s appropriate to add more text or signage around a statue or to add another statue that depicts a fuller story. Sometimes it’s appropriate to move or remove a memorial.
“We need to face the fact that our country has done some terrible things, but violence is not the way to get to a better place. Totalitarian regimes erase history.
“The United States is a great country – we can face our history honestly and peacefully and make sure the whole of it is depicted in a way we can learn from it,” he says.