Communities across the country are debating the display of Confederate monuments in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and Lebanon’s own statue of Gen. Robert Hatton is no exception.
Confederate veterans erected the monument in 1912, and individual citizens have called for its removal off and on in recent years. A change.org petition to take down the statue has gathered more than 7,300 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, while another in favor of keeping the statue has nearly 1,400.
Wider public interest in the statue today stems from a photograph of two individuals holding a white supremacist banner in front of it early this month. Opponents of the statue say it encourages those kinds of messages and glorifies slavery, while supporters consider Hatton an important figure in Lebanon’s history because of his local law practice, military service and time in elected office.
“The statue has been there all my life,” Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash said. “I was born and raised here and I appreciate the statue, though I understand it is offensive to some people … tearing it down is not an option for me.”
Ash said his recommendation is to have a second monument built on the square, and that the Wilson County Black History Committee could lead that effort.
“To put a Black statue up there with Gen. Hatton, I don’t see how that’s of any help,” Wilson County Black History Committee President Mary Harris said. “And though it is a concern as far as what it represents, I see other, more important things to put my energy in.”
Harris said she personally would rather see a push to engage the community’s youth and end the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to youth in poverty being statistically more likely to go to jail.
“I’ve seen a blind eye to things going on in our community,” she said. “I see young kids in my neighborhood running up and down the street with nowhere to go, and young people want to play every day ... we need to look at things like having the churches engage them. And I know we have the fairgrounds, but there should be some kind of organization with free community programs on the east side of town.”
Although Harris said the Hatton statue is not a priority issue, she added that she would not have a problem with it coming down. In either case, the local government is unlikely to decide Hatton’s fate.
The Wilson County Property Assessor’s Office staff said the United Daughters of the Confederacy owns the land, but their mapping system shows no owner because the property is tax-exempt. Ash said the Sons of Confederate Veterans and UDC maintain the property together.
“In 2013, the state legislature also passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act,” city historian and mayoral candidate Rick Bell said. “It prohibits the removal, relocation or renaming of memorials on public property unless the Tennessee Historical Commission grants a waiver, which they haven’t done in the seven years since that law was passed.”
Although the Hatton statue is on private property, the act would serve as a barrier to removal if the city or county ever received ownership. Bell said he wants the statue to remain on the square, but he and fellow mayoral candidates Ash and Rob Cesternino all support having citizens guide any decision. Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto did not return requests for comment.
“There are some ideas about putting up other monuments that represent unity and provide a more complete context of the Civil War era,” Bell said. “I’ve also heard the idea of putting up something for William Bowen Campbell. He was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery just like Hatton, and he fought for the Union during the Civil War. Fort Campbell was actually named after him, and I’ve always thought we should do more to recognize him.”
Ash organized a meeting between members of the SCV, UDC, Lebanon’s Black community and others to discuss options on June 16 and plans to hold another in July.
“I was well pleased with it, we had a lot of rational people and a good discussion,” Ash said. “We had people from SCV and UDC talk about the statue’s history, and we heard from several Black leaders about some of the feelings they get from it. Some wanted to move the statue, but I didn’t get the feeling that anybody wanted to tear it down.”
Cesternino said he sees those community meetings as the best way to move forward because they bring in more voices. He did not offer his personal view on the statue, but said it was only discussed in detail once during his eight years on the city council — when TDOT installed the roundabout on the square and the land’s ownership was called into question.
“Something we as a city should do, and I’m including myself in that because I was on the council at the time, is more research on topics like that,” he said. “We need to be able to speak more intelligently on those subjects … as I recall, the conversation at the time was that it was not exactly known who owned the property and who had a deed. Sometimes people forget 231 is a state highway, but Highway 70 also includes TDOT, and at some point the land was placed in the care of the SCV, so you’re looking at the city of Lebanon having no authority to make a decision.”
Cesternino added that he sees the city council as too small a body to make that decision for residents without hearing from as many as possible.
“One of the things I think where we sometimes cross the line is that I run into a tremendous amount of people that seem like they want to speak for the Black community,” he said. “I want to hear from leaders in the Black community … especially the clergy, because if there’s one group that has a pulse on how people are feeling it’s the leaders of the Black churches. And we also need to hear from those organizations like the SCV and UDC. There’s a tremendous about of people with more knowledge of Lebanon’s history and culture.”
Efforts to reach members of the local SCV and UDC chapters were not successful.