Monument Movements from Murfreesboro to Chapel Hill

Alissa Kane at the Ackland Art Museum.

Written by Alissa Kane, Graduate Assistant

The weekend of September 6, 2019, I made a solo journey to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to present at the Art Student Graduate Association’s Fifth Annual Symposium in Art History (try saying that title five times fast). I was hesitant to submit because it was clearly an art history conference, but they welcomed proposals from multiple disciplines and the symposium’s theme, “Community: Public, Private, Patron and Spectator,” supported my current research project. I submitted a proposal on my Master’s thesis topic, which outlines the history of the commemorative landscape in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

This project has been a year in the making, and this symposium was the first opportunity I have had to present on this research. I originally started this work in the fall of 2018. When I began researching, I discovered pretty quickly that Murfreesboro had no formal documentation of the monuments and historic markers in the city. To correct this issue, I spent (and still spend) a great deal of time trying to find documentation on the dedications of these historic markers and monuments. Through this research, I hope to identify when they were erected and who funded their construction. By answering these questions I can observe trends and perhaps answer why they were erected.

Reunion at the Confederate monument on Murfreesboro’s public square, 1929. Photo courtesy of Rutherford County Archives.

My presentation was titled “‘Built of a People’s Love’: Commemorative Practices in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.” I started off my presentation with a discussion on the Confederate monument located in Murfreesboro’s public square. In March of this year, late at night, someone had painted the phrases “Murderer,” “Fort Pillow,” and “Coward” on the three front faces of the monument. While this monument was dedicated to the Confederate dead, it is clear that these phrases are in reference to Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader, Confederate General and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. During the Civil War, Forrest captured Fort Pillow in Memphis, Tennessee. The Union soldiers surrendered, laying down their arms. After Forrest captured the fort, Confederate soldiers started slaughtering the African American soldiers who surrendered. That is where the “Fort Pillow” phrase comes from on the monument. I explained to the audience that this incident is a perfect example of how Civil War memory is contested among citizens of Murfreesboro. I also pointed to one of the phrases inscribed on this monument—Built of a People’s Love—and asked whether this monument was built of all the people’s love or built of a certain people’s love?

Inscription on the Confederate monument that resides on Murfreesboro’s public square. Photo taken by author.

I provided an overview of the people, places, and events the citizens of Murfreesboro commemorate in the form of monuments. Over twenty of the monuments in the city are dedicated to the Civil War. There are currently two on the landscape dedicated to local African American history. There are three that mention women. The remaining markers and monuments are commemorating local figures, local history, or men lost to other wars. I explained to the audience that cities should care about what monuments exist on the landscape because representation matters. In the case of women and African Americans, the landscape is nearly silent on these groups’ contributions to the city’s history. Groups such as the African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County are working tirelessly to balance this narrative on the commemorative landscape. They do this by organizing, researching and dedicating historic markers to African American history in Murfreesboro. The most recent marker dedication happened in August, which increased the number of markers on the landscape dedicated to African American history from one to two.

My presentation sparked a lot of discussion, most likely because UNC Chapel Hill has had issues with Confederate memorialization on their campus. Silent Sam was a controversial Confederate monument erected on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus in the early 1900s. Last year, student protestors organized and tore down the monument as part of a larger wave of protests opposing white supremacist ideals across the South. After my talk, I decided to wander campus to look for Silent Sam’s prior location. While I was walking around campus, I ran into an “intersectional radical” student organization called the Uncontrollables who were giving a tour titled “Local Histories of Resistance.” This tour focused on the history of protest on UNC’s campus.  Luckily, I found them as they were discussing Silent Sam. The tour guides explained that there had been movements for many years pushing for the monument’s removal. This was getting nowhere, so students decided to take things into their own hands. There is no trace of where Silent Sam once was. The trees and grass in the courtyard where it stood are undisturbed and serene—it is as if the statue was never there.

The Uncontrollables discuss the African American Monument, which stood close to Silent Sam. Photo taken by author.

I returned to the symposium pondering how white supremacy and its legacy might affect protest movements throughout the South in the coming years. The African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County’s efforts, as well as student protest efforts at UNC share the same underlying message: They are trying to balance the historical narrative on southern city landscapes. Overall, our commemorative landscapes need to be more representative of the many communities they serve. As long as groups like these keep up their efforts, then we are moving in the right direction.

Visit the website for Alissa’s research, called Murfreesboro Monuments, for more information.

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