By Grace Snell, Viking Fusion Reporter
MOUNT BERRY, Ga. — A new committee met for the first time at City Hall this Tuesday to discuss the creation of an interpretive plaque for Rome’s most controversial Confederate monument.
The creation of this committee, titled the Interpretation Advisory Committee, is the most recent development in a months-long conversation about how to handle a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, which stood at the base of Myrtle Hill Cemetery until this January. Although the City of Rome placed this statue in storage on January 29, the base of the monument remains on site.
The committee, which was authorized by the City Commission on July 13, 2020, will plan a new marker that provides additional context for Forrest’s life. It is currently comprised of six members: Jim Belzer, Hugh Durden, Faye Sansom Hicks, Jeff Brown, Sam Malone, and Timothy Pitts. Half of these have positive sentiments about Forrest while the other half do not.
Rome City Commissioner Jamie Doss, chair of the Committee on Committees, said a main purpose of the advisory committee is to help Rome address a painful part of its past.
“This action is not new to just Rome, Georgia, I mean, this is happening all over the country,” Doss said. “And the last thing we want to see is vandalism or violence, and hopefully, this will get us ahead of it.”
The advisory committee has a budget of $5,000 for the plaque, some of which can be used to pay a professional historian to advise the process. They will have 180 days, which began with their meeting on Tuesday, to finish their task.
The advisory committee’s first goal is to elect a seventh member, preferably a neutral party, to serve as committee chair. The Interpretation Advisory Committee’s next meeting will be Tuesday, March 23 at 5:00 p.m.
The Tuesday meeting comes nearly two months after the City of Rome removed Forrest’s statue from its base on January 29 and placed it into storage.
The removal of the statue
Although the city commissioners voted unanimously for the statue’s removal in July 2020, Commissioner Bill Collins, Rome’s mayor at the time, said they postponed action to investigate the costs of removal, potential legal complications, and the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Collins said he hopes the decision to store the statue will help diverse citizens feel welcome in Rome.
“I think it sends, in my opinion, the message that the city’s course continued to evolve and grow, and it is the direction of the citizens and the constituents to put forth the best positive image that could be accepted by all races and nationalities,” Collins said.
Collins said that a second citizen committee, the Monument Advisory Committee, will work for an indefinite amount of time to research and recommend how various aspects of Rome’s history could be memorialized in the future.
This work is especially important to Selena Tilly, the archivist for the Rome Area History Center, who has researched and documented Rome’s history for the past 40 years. According to Tilly, Rome has been a diverse city since its earliest days, and she hopes the Monument Advisory Committee’s suggestions will reflect this.
“We really, truly need to mark and tell the history of all, not just one race, one nationality,” Tilly said. “It should be a city to where we can come, anybody in the world can come to Rome, and be able to see the entire history of all of the different groups that make up Rome.”
In response to misinformation circulating about Forrest, Tilly started her own in-depth research on his life by combing through original source materials. Tilly said a few advisory committee members have already consulted her for greater historical understanding, and that she is glad to assist in this process.
In a situation where emotions run high on both sides, Tilly said it is crucial for history to be thoroughly researched and considered in its context. No single monument inscription will be able to tell the whole story.
Doss echoed this, saying he believes having the statue in storage for now is the right decision.
“There’s strong feelings on both sides, and I think relocating the statue and placing it into storage was a compromise,” Doss said. “I think we’re doing what a lot of other communities are doing with monuments that cause pain and bring up hard memories.”
As people across the United States have called attention to racial and historical injustices this past year, areas like Rome—including Berry College within it—are wrestling with how to handle their historic legacies.