The Gen. Robert Hatton statue standing on the Lebanon Square became the focal point of discussion Tuesday as groups convened at Lebanon City Hall to discuss the statue’s past and future.
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Daughters of the Confederacy, city officials and other community members discussed the statue and possible options for its future location in the first of a potential series of meetings intended to find common ground about the statue.
Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash organized the meeting after Dshaun Jones, member of the Swift Dreamz foundation and Paradise Property/Keller Williams Realty, and Britton Winfree, member of the Manhood Project, held a meeting with the mayor about the statue.
Hatton, a Cumberland University graduate and attorney, ran for three political offices, including the governor’s seat prior to the start of the Civil War in 1861. Hatton, who believed the country should remain intact, ultimately fought for Tennessee when it joined the Confederacy.
Hatton died eight days after being promoted to brigadier general in 1862.
“To their credit, they did not come wanting to tear the statue down, but wanted to talk about maybe moving the statue. I don’t have a solution either way, but I want us to talk about options, feelings and those types of things,” said Ash, who said the numerous emails he has received about the statue are about evenly split between supporters and opponents. “My first thought was to bring these people into a room and talk about it, which is why we’re here.”
Winfree said his inspiration to continue to push for the statue’s removal was sparked by a recent photo on social media featuring two masked individuals kneeling in front of the sign and displaying a sign that reads, “Make America White Again.”
Lebanon Police Chief Mike Justice said the department is investigating the incident, which appears to be a part of a string of similar displays the duo has executed throughout the area.
“It was more upsetting to me that they had a place to pose and it’s a place we all have to ride by and see,” Winfree said. “It makes me feel like I don’t belong. There’s a lot that goes behind the Confederacy.”
“There are all kinds of sides to these stories. I certainly would not view it favorably from your perspective, but I understand your perspective,” said Robert Hatton Townsend, Gen. Hatton’s great-great-grandson who attended the meeting. “I think that man — and not because he’s a distant relative from me — was a rare character. A very rare person — natural born leaders, successful politician. He was just a good man, and he was fighting for his state. In those days, the state was the ultimate loyalty, not the federal government.”
Ash suggested one option is the possible erection of a statue of a prominent black person in Lebanon’s history that could be placed on city property just in front of Burger King on the Square that could be converted into a small honorary park or area.
Who owns the statue?
Lebanon City Attorney Andy Wright gave legal and historical perspective on the statue, which was erected in 1912.
Wright said the city could not find any deed on the property, but found documentation the civic league at the time — no relation to the current Wilson County Civic League — received permission from Lebanon and Wilson County officials to have space within the center of the Square to plant flowers.
“Four years later, the ordinance was passed to give the Sons of Confederate Veterans permission to put the state there,” Wright said.
Wright said he believed the city owned the property at the time of the statue’s erection, but believed the state of Tennessee gained right-of-way on the property after the construction of Highway 231.
“The city can’t order its removal. We can’t do that because it doesn’t belong to us. We don’t have the deed on the land and we don’t own the ground it sits on anymore because the state owns it and we don’t own the statue,” Wright said. “The city really has not legal ground to stand on to do anything about the statue.”
Wright said in order for the statue to be removed or relocated, an agreement between all interested parties must be reached and presented to the Tennessee Historical Commission for a recommendation to the Tennessee Legislature.
Wight also highlighted a Lebanon City Council ordinance passed in 1921 to protect the Hatton statue from desecration in response of the 1921 Tulsa race riot.
“We are a year short of an entire century of talking about this statue, and as a result of a black man getting killed, or several black men then. It’s time to do something, and we have to get somewhere I believe,” Wright said.
Respecting everyone’s heritage
Winfree and Jones offered to pay for the relocation of the statue.
“We’re not trying to disrespect the statue. It’s not my heritage, but somebody’s heritage and we don’t want to see it disrespected. A lot of people around the country are vandalizing these statues, and that would cause a lot of uproar in Lebanon if that were to start happening,” Winfree said.
“Now is the time where we’re really trying to bring everybody together with peace, love and unity, and we just want to come to a solution where we can have something that represents Lebanon in the heart of our community and our city that doesn’t have divisive views,” Jones said.
Businessman Al Ashworth noted his late grandmother — Hattie Bryant — was honored with the name of Winfree Bryant Middle School.
“My grandmother’s name is on that building. I’ll put it this way; if anyone tries to take her name off of that building, I’d be very upset. My question is, ‘when does it stop?’ When and if it does stop, will everybody be happy about it? Absolutely not,” he said. “There’s no way to make everybody in these situations. There is no real compromise.”
Reed Working, past commander of the General Robert Hatton Camp 723 Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he agreed with Ash that a simple removal of the statue would cause an uproar among Lebanon residents.
“You’re going to cause World War III here if you do that,” he said. “This group here can keep that from happening. Your side. Our side. But we have to do it right. If it goes the attorney route — the ugly route — (Ash) knows what he’s talking about.”
“We’re talking about if it was to be removed, there would be one side that will be in an uproar and be flat out mad,” Jones said. “What about the other side that’s been fighting for this change to happen that if a decision came back that it wasn’t removed or moved?”