The balancing act that is history and heritage was on full display last night (Monday) at Pulaski City Hall when the Board of Mayor and Aldermen met to discuss, among other things, the possibility of changing the name of Sam Davis Park.
A crowd that flowed from the city council meeting room and down the corridor of City Hall, came to the board’s work session to hear and have their voices heard.
While the agenda item most were there to discuss read “Name change of Sam Davis Park,” it was clear once that conversation began it was about much more.
For some, the discussion was about removing Sam Davis’ name and image from Pulaski because to them it represents the subjugation and mistreatment of their ancestors, predating the founding of the Unites States and highlighted in memorials to people who they say fought to keep them enslaved.
For others, it was remembering the legacy of a young man, who was heralded far and wide for his integrity and honor, a young man who went to the gallows himself to ensure that another person would not have to. Sam Davis to them is a veteran and the kind of hero to be honored.
For some, it was about the racism of the past continuing to manifest itself today.
For others, it was expressing the love of God that they see as the only route to the unity that almost everyone said they want.
The history of Sam Davis and the purposes and origins of the Civil War were debated from both sides, as were the realities of racial relations in the country and Giles County today.
Comments made by board members and some of the comments made by the public included:
Alderman Hardin Franklin stressed to the crowd that he brought the name changing issue up as a representative of Pulaski citizens who asked him to.
“I asked in this day and this time and this hour why is it that we’re still celebrating Sam Davis on a sports park,” Franklin said. “My concern with this again, we live not in 1865 or 1863, we’re living in 2020. Those things that happened in 1863 are history. We should keep it as history, not to continue to bring it into 2020. There are a lot of things that I hope we wouldn’t do today. It’s a different time, different place and we should have different respect for individuals.”
Alderman Vicky Harwell:
“Past councils have worked tirelessly to get where we are. Have we done enough? I’m not saying that. I’m saying we have worked in unity and brotherhood to make some really positive changes here. I don’t see in black and white at all.
“Let’s start today with unity and brotherhood. Let’s tell our story, and our story is we all get along. We work together. We don’t want to see in black and white because my concern has been and continues to be it starts with renaming the park that’s not enough.
Alderman Jerry Bryant:
“This particular statue, I never thought of it as a glorified statue to a confederate soldier. I thought of it as a statue to honor and to the integrity of the person it was put up for.”
Bryant told the story of Sam Davis’ slave who was with him at the jail, Coleman Davis Smith, calling the men friends.
“When Sam Davis said ‘I’d rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend,’ was he talking about his black friend or talking about his white friend?
“It was because of honor and integrity that statue was put up.”
Alderman Ricky Keith:
“The progress made in our community is uncanny compared to some of the issues faced across our nation in communities elsewhere. It would be a slap in the face of recent history, black and white, who worked so hard to remove the hateful elements that had formed here, taken root here and are no longer here.
“I see a young man that stood for something. You can debate his ideology and philosophy all day long, but his sacrifice was not for slavery, his sacrifice was for people. I think it’s appropriate to see that and acknowledge that.”
Keith also noted it has been mentioned to him that a community committee be created on how to add to the community’s memorials to build a foundation of solidarity.
“Let’s recognize all of our history,” he said.
Alderman Randy Massey:
“I went and looked at that statue. I read what was on it. After I got through looking at it, I didn’t see a confederate soldier or a union soldier. When I got through, I saw myself and everybody in this room and everybody throughout our country.
“We can’t change history. The only thing we can change is ourselves. Taking a statue down won’t do anything. Changing the name of that park won’t do anything. It won’t get you into heaven, won’t keep you out of it. Changing your heart is all you can do. Knowing we can’t change history and changing the name of that stadium won’t do anything, in my opinion, we might as well just leave everything alone. Because you can’t change history.”
Alderman Pat Miles:
“I never have considered our community a divided community. One of the beautiful things about living in Giles County is that we have people with opinions, but we seem to somehow listen to each other, and that I find to be the most unique thing of any place I’ve lived.”
“Leave these statues here as reminder that we never need to go back through that part of history again. I do not believe any one man should be in bondage to another man. I believe in equal justice for all, but what is happening today is that wedge is being driven deeper between unity and division.”
“When you demonize one race or the other you’re the problem. We should all see each other equally.
“This is an issue that is over 150 years old. When you go two streets over and see drug addicts falling in the road, they’re slaves. You see sex trafficking in the news, those are slaves today. Why are we not focusing on present day things instead of focusing on things from a century ago?”
Benita Kimbrough Cross:
“Those who have come forward and spoken today, you don’t feel the pain that I’ve felt in my life. You cannot relate to the things that I’ve had to deal with. Because you don’t look like me, you don’t have to deal with being discriminated against because you’re a black female.
Naming black men like Charles Kimbrough, James Brown, Kenneth Fields, Lee Brown, Frank Brooks and John Butch Jones, Cross asked why there is nothing in Pulaski honoring them.
“They were loyal to their tasks as well. We should honor them. You don’t have to necessarily change history, but we can make our future better. Change needs to start with us so there will be a future for the people coming after us. We need to teach a better future and dwell together in unity.”
“I think if every one of us would stop and put God first in our lives above and beyond everything else, nothing else would matter. Right behind God, we need to put love and truth. If we did those three things, we wouldn’t be sitting in this room today.
“History is history. Not to be liked or disliked. Learn from it. Even if it offends you, even better. Because then you are less likely to repeat it. It’s not yours to erase. It belongs to each and every one of us in this room.”
“You talk about honoring southern history and southern heritage, but what about my southern history and southern heritage?
“The statue has always been an issue for me. I’ve always wondered why is there a statue of this man in town. He seemed pretty honorable, he fought for what he believed in, he died for what he believed in. But didn’t he die and was willing to die for enslaving my people?
“You can correct history. You can preserve history while also respecting mine.”
“If we’re going to come together, let’s come together and be honest about this thing. We’ve got history too. We’ve got feelings. We’re hurting just like you’re hurting. If it hurts you to see the statue gone in some ways, it hurts me to see the statue there because I know what it stands for.
“When God comes back, that statue is going to fall. That’s material. Love the person beside you. Love each other. You’re not going to forget Sam Davis if that statue is not there.”
There was no action planned or taken by the city council on the issue last night. There was no determination to move the matter of changing the name of Sam Davis Park to the board’s next meeting, which will be at noon, Tuesday, July 28, at City Hall.
Board members are allowed to bring issues previously discussed to the board for a possible vote whether that issue is listed on the agenda or not.