When retired Councilman John Howard received his key to the city of Covington on Dec. 21, he asked a very pertinent question: "What door does this fit in?"
The question brought a laugh to the council room, as anybody who glimpsed the 5-inch long brass key quickly realized it wouldn’t fit any door in city hall.
While many larger cities routinely hand out keys to their city, Howard was the first Covingtonian to receive one, at least in recent memory. Mayor Kim Carter said she ordered a few of the brass keys to offer a permanent token to the city’s honored few.
"It’s really ceremonial, to show a sign of appreciation for good citizenship. I wanted it to be a gesture of good will and citizenship for those who have contributed a lot, whether individuals, organizations or groups," she said.
"John helped build our city to the point it is at today, so it was only appropriate for the city to honor him."
The key has the city’s emblem on its head, and has an inscription along its length that says it is a key to the City of Covington, Georgia.
Decatur is a nearby city that has been known to hand out keys before, but Newton County’s government and its five municipalities have traditionally read proclamations instead. Neither long-serving County Clerk Jackie Smith nor equally long-serving City Manager Steve Horton could ever remember a key being given out before.
Smith said the county commonly issues proclamations celebrating citizens or organizations and sometimes names a calendar day in their honor. The county and its cities frequently issue joint proclamations as well.
However, Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan said he remembered former Mayor Aileen Burton giving a key to the city to SKC, a polyester film production company that is one of the city’s largest industries.
According to many modern histories, the tradition of giving a key to the city dates back at least to medieval Europe.
According to New York City’s official Web site, a key to the city in medieval times was symbolic, but also powerful. At the time, feudal lords protected their cities with high walls and imposing gates and required travelers to present legal papers and customs taxes in order to enter and exit a city. A key to the city gave an important diplomat or merchant the authority to pass at will and without expense.
The tradition is said to be related to another medieval practice of giving someone "freedom to the city." This honor, and sometimes a tangible gift like a key, was given to a ruling lord or king. The honor simultaneously showed allegiance and obedience to the ruler, while also declaring independence, by showing that the citizens had willfully allowed the ruler to enter, as opposed to being forced to allow him to enter. This was tied into the difference between vassals, who were technically owned by the ruler, and freemen.
The freedom to the city honor is still given out by many countries around the world including the United Kingdom and some other European countries.
Modern keys to the city have at times been a controversial practice in America. The most notorious example is when Saddam Hussein received a key to the City of Detroit in 1979. At the time, Iraq and the United States were allies in their efforts to control Iran, and Hussein had donated $200,000 to a local Detroit church. Other examples include athletes, who were later admitted to using steroids, and musical artists, who were later arrested.
However, the keys are also frequently given to individuals and groups that have shown dedicated service, like Howard, or accomplished heroic feats, like Capt. Sully Sullenberger, who safely landed U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River.
The tradition has been around for a long time, and each city has its criteria for giving out a key. With its own tradition just begun, Covington will have to decide how it will judge key worthiness.