Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul and the City Council have begun the process to rename two city streets that may honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader.
Meeting for the first time for more than two months in person – but still offering a livestream – the council on June 16 approved a resolution to rename Lake Forrest Drive and Forrest Lake Drive by dropping one “R” from each. In his original proposal announced June 2, Paul had only named Lake Forrest Drive.
Councilmember Andy Bauman, whose district includes much of Lake Forrest, agreed with the street name changes.
“You don’t want to erase history. But then again, one person’s history is another person’s nightmare,” he said. “I think this is a good starting point and we’ll listen.”
“We can never make amends for some of the things that have happened in our history. But we can start doing some things to make amends in small but meaningful ways,” said Paul. “…I think it’s very important that we send a message to our community that these things matter to us as a body.”
In discussing the proposal, however, Paul also cited the position that Confederate symbols once reflected “heritage” but must be rejected now because they have been “expropriated by groups who were focused on hate.” Historians say that the Confederacy was fundamentally racist and fought the war specifically to preserve slavery of black people.
Sandy Springs must hold a public hearing to rename a road and advertise it at least 25 days in advance. All property owners affected by the change must get written notice of it. The public hearing will be at the July 21 council meeting.
Lake Forrest Drive and Forrest Lake Drive are both partially located within the city limits of Atlanta. Paul has contacted Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other city leaders about the proposal.
The council also approved a resolution urging the Georgia General Assembly to pass a hate crimes bill. The city adopted its own hate crimes bill in 2019. City Attorney Dan Lee said that other governmental bodies in Georgia have asked the Georgia Municipal Association about the Sandy Springs hate crime ordinance and to get copies of it as they consider their own ordinances.
They also asked city residents to start signing up at about.CivicDinners.com/SandySprings to participate in a city-sponsored program to connect all parts of the community in small groups that will discuss and share experiences with racism and social injustice. The virtual meetings will begin in July, said Sharon Kraun, city spokesperson. Staff members are working to coordinate the formation of groups and to create a standard set of questions that all groups will use. Each group member will get to speak on each question before anyone is given another chance to speak to make sure everyone is heard.
The city’s moves come in response to nationwide and local protests of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and of many other controversial killings of black people around the country, including Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. Confederate monuments and tributes are also being spotlighted for change or removal around the South. The day after the council discussion, Piedmont Healthcare announced it will permanently remove from its Piedmont Atlanta Hospital campus in Buckhead a Civil War monument that honors the “valor” of soldiers on both sides.
Lake Forrest discussion
In neighborhood discussions, the Lake Forrest renaming has received some praise as well as criticism as either political correctness or an empty gesture.
The mayor discussed his own background of growing up in the South. Paul said his great-great-grandfather was captured in the wheat field of the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and died in a federal prison-of-war camp south of Philadelphia.
“My grandmother ran the United Daughters of Confederacy chapter in her part of Birmingham, Alabama, all of her adult life,” he said.
She told him about the heritage of the Civil War veterans.
“And I have dozens, dozens of ancestors who fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War,” he said. He listened to her share the heroic stories about his ancestor. At the time, he said, he gained an appreciation for what was taught to him as a child.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that there are different viewpoints, different understandings that the symbols that I grew up revering… I came to understand that those symbols had also been expropriated by groups who were focused on hate,” Paul said. “And my response for people who say this is about heritage, not hate, the fact that those symbols have been appropriated for purposes of generating hate means we had lost them as symbols of our heritage.”
“And so I don’t accept that argument any longer,” he said.
Gordon Jones, the senior military historian at the Atlanta History Center and a Civil War expert, said that the Confederacy was always about racism and preserving enslavement of black people and said so in its constitution. He said that looking at what politicians and soldiers said during the war and in the 40 years leading up to it — as opposed to post-war narratives — there is no doubt about its motivation. “And the central issue without which there would have been no secession — I mean, this was the issue that really split the country — was slavery,” said Jones. “So when you look at that broad context, it is very clear that slavery is the central cause of the war.”
Likewise, said Jones, Confederate monuments and similar tributes are not just controversial now, but always have been, even though they “enjoyed a lot of popular support” in the South.
“This is not a new story,” he said. “Monuments like this have been contested since the day they were put up, not just by African Americans, but also, particularly in the post-war period, by U.S. veterans who have felt this was a way of sort of letting the Confederacy win after their comrades had sacrificed all this.”
What complicates the road names issue is that the city can’t prove for sure that Lake Forrest was named for the Confederate general.
“But knowing how Southern history has been manifesting itself across this region through the decades, 150 years, there is virtually no doubt in my mind about the origin of the name Forrest when it comes to Lake Forrest Drive,” said Paul. “It was just second nature at the time this road came into being, they would be named after people that were the leaders of the Confederacy in the South.”
Forrest may not have been all evil, but he did horrible things, the mayor said.
“His troops massacred a regiment of black union troops at Fort Pillow. They were in uniform. In the rules of war, you do not massacre troops who surrender. But those troops killed every one of them” Paul said.
Forrest resigned his position as the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, Paul said, but that was more because they didn’t follow his orders than a moral conviction. Later in life, Forrest converted to Christianity and even gave a speech in favor of racial harmony.
“I appreciate redemption,” Paul said. “But I don’t think one speech wipes out a lifetime of record of massacring African American troops in uniform. [Or] of leading and being one of the key leaders of probably the most notorious hate group this country has ever generated. And honoring that is something that I don’t think we can do any longer.”
“I’m not for erasing history. I’m not for tearing down every monument, renaming everything that’s been named through years,” Paul said.
He said it is important that the city send a message to the community that if they want a community with harmony and understanding of justice, they need to understand what these symbols mean to their neighbors, community members and people who they encounter during their daily lives.
The mayor said the city can make the same simple change the Fulton School System made a few years ago when it dropped one an “R” to make Lake Forest Elementary School “forest as in trees, rather than Forrest as in names.”
Councilmember John Paulson said efforts must continue. He doesn’t want the council after doing this to say, “we are good to go here.”
“This is the start of an introspective look of what meaningful change can be in the city,” Paulson said.
He was interested in seeing what other steps the city can make to keep social injustice and racism out of Sandy Springs.
“Make this a start,” Paulson said.
–John Ruch contributed