BRUNSWICK, GA. | Who knew that Robert E. Lee’s statues would come down?
At one time the leader of the Army of Northern Virginia probably had more kids named for him than, well, anybody. There still are some Robert E. Lee IIIs and probably IVs around.
But New Orleans took down Lee’s statue recently and others are targeted. At least they’re being taken down intact and moved, in come cases, to museums out of the flight patterns of pigeons and other birds who have no sense of history. And at least they weren’t taken down by angry mobs like Saddam Hussein’s likenesses.
There have also been some name changes. Jacksonville’s Westside High School, formerly Forrest High, comes to mind.
But what will Georgia do when the time comes that people say there should be no Jeff Davis County? Georgia has a cluster of county names that honor Confederates including Ben Hill and Toombs counties. Hill was a U.S. senator and later secretary of state for Confederate States of America. Robert Toombs was a U.S. congressman, but after secession was the Confederate Secretary of State. But Toombs fell out with Davis over the artillery bombardment on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the first real act of war in the Civil War. He resigned the secretariat and became a brigadier general and was wounded at Antietam.
Up in north Georgia, Stephens County is named for Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the C.S.A. and Georgia’s 53rd governor.
Georgia has counties with names that many would find less offensive including Lee County, which was named for Gen. “Lighthorse” Harry Lee rather than his more famous son, Robert E. Lee. Pierce County was named for President Franklin Pierce and Wayne County was named for Revolutionary War hero Mad Anthony Wayne.
Florida doesn’t seem to have Georgia’s naming issues. William Pope Duval was governor of what was then the Florida territory from 1822 through 1834. Nassau was named for the Duchy of Nassau, Seminole was named for the Florida State Football team — or perhaps not — DeSoto for the seeker of the non-existent Fountain of Youth and Lake and Orange counties are pretty obvious. My favorite Florida county name is Marion for the Revolutionary War general Francis Marion, the South Carolina Swamp Fox.
I wanted to ask a member of the Jeff Davis County NAACP what it’s like to advocate for civil rights there, but there is no local affiliate. Larry Nesmith, president of the Douglas-Coffee County NAACP, said his affiliate has assisted African-Americans with issues in Jeff Davis County.
The Jeff Davis County name is “not necessarily a problem,” Nesmith said.
“People need to learn more of the history of where these names came from,” he said. “We can’t change history, but we need to know it.”
He didn’t say so, but you get the feeling he was also saying we need to acknowledge that history.
The history of the naming of Jeff Davis County goes back to 1905 when the county was formed by carving out big chunks of Coffee and Appling County. It was Georgia’s 140th county and it took an act of the Georgia General Assembly as did changing the Georgia flag in 1956 to a version dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. That flag was adopted by legislators dedicated to segregation in reaction to federal pressure to integrate public schools.
Nesmith goes to Baxley often and rides by a Confederate monument depicting a rebel soldier holding his rifle and his wife. It brings to mind a subsistence farmer heading out to fight, what some still call, the War of Northern Aggression. Be that as it may, Nesmith said he had a problem with that monument when it was in front of the courthouse but doesn’t mind it now that it’s been moved to private property.
“That’s their civil right,” he said.
He does have a problem, however, with what he sees in Pearson, Ga., where a Confederate flag flies in front of the Atkinson County courthouse.
“They try to hide it by flying it at half (staff) behind a tree. They say it’s a heritage thing and you wouldn’t understand,” Nesmith said.
He laughed a little and said, “I understand.”
Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405