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Confederacy group seeks to block plans to remove memorial from downtown Athens

By Joe Johnson

A Confederacy historical group this week filed in Clarke County Superior Court a motion for an emergency restraining order to thwart the county’s plans to remove a memorial honoring Athens’ Confederate war dead from its current prominent downtown location outside the main entrance to the University of Georgia.

The motion was filed Monday by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, General T.R.R. Cobb Camp No. 97.

The court filing cites a provision of state law that makes it unlawful “for any person, firm, corporation, or other entity to mutilate, deface, defile, or abuse contemptuously any publicly owned monument located, erected, constructed, created, or maintained on real property owned by an agency or the State of Georgia.  No officer or agency shall remove or conceal from display any such monument for the purpose of preventing the visible display of the same. “

Mayor Kelly Girtz first spoke about possibly relocating the memorial from its current location prominent location during a June 2 Athens-Clarke County mayor and commission regular meeting.

The tall, obelisk-shaped memorial at the intersection of East Broad Street and College Avenue is among the first things people see when entering downtown from the west.

“I have long intended to move this monument to a failed racist movement away from a position of prominence in Athens, and now is the time to do this,” Girtz said following the meeting. 

Two days before the meeting, the Confederate monument was a focal point for protests condemning the May 25 death of George Floyd, who was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police. His death was only one of several recent incidents of unarmed black men being killed by police in various states that has sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

Girtz told Classic City News that a woman who spoke during the May 31 Athens protest “noted the pain of passing (the monument) for years when she was a student.”

The Confederate monument was erected in 1871-72 by the Ladies Memorial Association to commemorate Confederate soldiers from Athens who died during the Civil War. It was built in the center of the College Avenue and East Washington Street intersection near City Hall and was relocated to its current location in 1912.

The mayor said that the Sons of Confederate Veterans' motion for a restraining order will not hinder the planned removal of the monument.

The matter is scheduled to be discussed at the June 25 mayor and commission meeting as part of a TSPLOST 2018 project to improve pedestrian safety at College Avenue and East Broad Street.

In September 2016 the county’s Traffic Engineering staff conducted a pedestrian count at the monument site that determined that safety would be improved at the high-traffic area by widening the pedestrian crosswalk to accommodate an additional 200-300 pedestrians per hour.

That entire intersection, known as College Square, might be temporarily or permanently closed to vehicular traffic so that it can be used as a pedestrian mall, according to planning documents.

The traffic engineering study found that several pedestrians typically were trapped in the median where the monument is located during each cycle of the pedestrian crossing signal.

The agenda item for the June 25 mayor and commission meeting notes that in April 2019 amendments made by the state General Assembly took effect regarding the preservation and protection of certain public monuments, as well as providing for the moving of such monuments with specific limitations.

The proposal to move the Confederate monument appears to abide by those amendments.

The agenda item states: “The monument at the current site has experienced graffiti, vandalism, and people climbing on to it at their risk; has become a lightning rod of friction among citizens; is a potential catastrophe that could happen at any time if individuals attempt to forcibly remove or destroy it to the extent that the monument has become a public nuisance...that is manifestly injurious to the public health or safety.”

The proposed new location for the monument is at the end of Timothy Place, “proximate to the Battle of Barber Creek Civil War” battlefield, “where the monument would be accessible by both vehicles and pedestrians and would “not constitute any danger for onlookers as the current site does.”

Girtz said the county would begin looking to hire a contractor to move the monument after the agenda item is passed at next week's commission meeting.

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