COVINGTON, Ga. — A stone monument in the middle of the Covington Square has been a nuisance to some and a source of pride for others for generations in Newton County.
Now, calls for removal of the 114-year-old “To the Confederate Dead of Newton County” statue on the Covington Square are growing amid efforts nationwide to remove public memorials to those who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The stone memorial was dedicated in 1906 and features a life-sized statue of a uniformed soldier standing on a square column with both hands on the muzzle of a rifle.
An online Change.org petition organized by Covington resident Tyler Still has garnered almost 11,000 names in support of removing and relocating the statue, which is roughly 23 feet in total height.
But a 2019 law designed to protect such memorials in Georgia has placed the Newton County Board of Commissioners in a bind as they work to find a solution that will satisfy as many county residents as possible.
The law says a local government cannot remove, relocate, conceal or obscure a monument placed on public land unless it is necessary for building, expanding or altering buildings, roads and highways.
If relocated for those reasons, a monument must be placed at "a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, and access” but not to a museum, cemetery or mausoleum unless it was originally placed in such locations, according to the law.
Newton County Chairman Marcello Banes said he is working on a solution that will be “best for this entire community.”
“From the moment I first thought about becoming chairman of the Newton County Board of Commissioners my goal was to make this community ‘OneNewton,’” Banes said in a statement.
“Any time something comes up that divides that, it is my duty to evaluate it and do what is best for this entire community.
“I am currently doing just that and utilizing my resources to see what our next steps will be.”
The Rockdale County chairman last week ordered a Confederate memorial in downtown Conyers removed after he said threats to it prompted him to take action.
A DeKalb County judge in Decatur and Athens political leaders also recently ordered Confederate monuments removed from their cities’ historic downtown areas.
Those who protested recent police shootings of unarmed Black people nationwide sparked the latest call for removal of Confederate memorials they said glorified a pre-Civil War economic system that relied on the forced labor of African-Americans.
Still, who attended Eastside High School, said the same racial issues highlighted nationwide prompted him to take action in his hometown in late May.
He said he wanted to raise the issue of the statue’s removal with local political leaders in his Change.org petition but also wanted to offer a solution to the problem by suggesting it be relocated.
His petition says the original purpose of statue supporter was to “revise the history of the Confederacy as honorable and erase the suffering of slavery.”
Longtime Covington civil rights activist Archie Shepherd said he believed the county government did not feel there was enough public sentiment for removing the statue in the past.
“The Black community has always wanted it moved,” said Shepherd, a former county NAACP president.
But he said he believed the county commission — which must directly address the issue because the statue is on county-owned land — will place it on a meeting agenda for possible action soon.
“It’s time for it to get off the Square,” Shepherd said. “It’s an embarrassment to the county. It puts a bad taste in people’s mouths.”
He also said he felt it should be moved to the Confederate section of the Covington City Cemetery rather than destroying it or moving it out of public sight in a museum.
But James Stokes of the Newton County-based Gen. George “Tig” Anderson camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he found it “odd that we live in a time” in the U.S. in which people are discouraged from honoring their ancestors as other countries do.
He said a fund-raising drive spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the early 1900s raised much of the $2,500 to build the statue as a memorial to those who fought in the war — not to glorify the institution of slavery.
Stokes added that the Newton County group’s position on the statue’s removal mirrors the position of the SCV’s state chapter to oppose removal of any memorials to Confederate war dead in Georgia.
The Georgia SCV said in a statement that Congress designated Confederate veterans as American veterans in a 1958 federal law.
“They deserve the same respect as all American veterans and we believe that an attack on one set of veterans is an attack on all American veterans,” the Georgia SCV stated.
Greg Gaillard, president of the Newton County Historical Society, said Civil War veterans and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked for about 14 years to raise the money to build the memorial.
J.M. Pace of Covington — for which Pace Street is named for his family — headed the fund-raising committee and Newton County and Covington city governments also contributed.
It was dedicated in front of a crowd of about 3,000 on the Square in 1906, Gaillard said.
He noted the Newton County statue was unique among the hundreds of war memorials built in Georgia around that time because its inscription in part highlighted women’s contributions to supporting the war effort.
Newton County schoolchildren regularly celebrated Confederate Memorial Day at the memorial and in the Confederate section of the city cemetery up until the 1950s, Gaillard said.
He said he does not recall much public controversy about the statue in 48 years of living in Newton County until it was raised in 2017.
The county commission hosted a 2017 public meeting at which undercover police reportedly were stationed because of prior threats of violence. About 100 attendees heard the county government would need to spend about $100,000 to move the monument, according to a report in The Covington News.