A monument that several speakers admitted they never knew existed until this week brought impassioned pleas from local residents Thursday night.
The Cookeville City Council heard from some 39 residents during more than 90 minutes of public comment. The council decided during a Monday night work session to place signage at the City Cemetery noting all headstones and monuments were privately-owned. But Council Member Mark Miller said later in the week he wanted to see the memorial removed. He said it violated the original agreement between the city and a local Sons of Confederate veterans group.
Miller did not ask to amend Thursday’s agenda. The issue was not discussed at all until the council completed its agenda and opened the floor for public comment.
“That memorial is a divisive memorial,” Putnam County NAACP President Thomas Savage said.
Putnam County Resident Cynthia Carrington said the monument honors young men that went off to war, many of whom did not have a choice. Speaker Elijah Anderson disagreed. He said the Confederate flag is being used as a symbol of hate.
“If you wish to not honor slavery, take that down or at least put up signs,” Alex Parsons said.
“I do not believe the monument should be removed,” Mark Davis said. “This complaint…it’s a false premise, it’s a false conclusion. It shouldn’t go any further than this.”
The monument, erected in 2004 by the Dillard-Judd post of the Sons Of Confederate Veterans group, stands on a piece of land unsuitable for human remains, according to the group’s David Daniels.
The former manager of the City Cemetery offered two pieces of land for the memorial prior to construction. Daniels said the group raised money for the monument at the Cookeville Depot and History Museum, city-owned facilities.
Resident Carol Fleetwood said it’s time to look for a solution. She said the monument has been place for 16 years so the city needs to look forward.
“If you could ban from now-on the (confederate) flag flying on city property or a replica of one, it would clarify the laws for the future,” Fleetwood said.
At the conclusion of the public comment, City Manager James Mills said city staff had prepared language for signage to be installed at the northern and southern entrances to the cemetery. As discussed Monday night, Mills said the sign would state all headstones and memorials are privately-owned.
“And the City of Cookeville is not responsible for the content of any memorial,” Mills said.
Mills said he and the human resources director will prepare amendments to the personnel manual concerning what symbols are permissible for display. Mills said he would bring those updates to the city council in the future for approval.
Council Member Eric Walker said it had been difficult to listen Thursday night to the division present in the dialogue.
“I, for one, thought we were a very unified city,” Walker said. “We’ve brought voices and given them a megaphone to fight on something that doesn’t necessarily need to be fought about.”
Mayor Ricky Shelton said he worried about the precedent being sent by discussing the removal of a memorial.
“Slavery and racism are wrong, they always have been and they always will be,” Shelton said. “But whether anyone of us approves of what a headstone or monument says, a cemetery is a sacred place. And it should not be desecrated.”
Supporters on both sides of the issue arrived early Thursday afternoon. Those who wished to speak were brought into the council chambers one person at a time to speak on the issues in an effort to promote social distancing.