Photo: Pictured above, Forrest Cemetery’s chapel at 700 S 15th Street is among the structures discussed at Gadsden City Council work sessions regarding its name. (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
No change will come to Gadsden’s Emma Sansom monument or Forrest Cemetery until further notice.
On Tuesday, Gadsden City Council majority voted against taking any action to move the monument on Broad Street, while a resolution to rename Forrest Cemetery to Freedom Memorial Cemetery failed by a 4 to 3 vote.
Little discussion preceded the Sansom vote, but council members discussed at length the legality of renaming Forrest Cemetery prior to making their decisions. Due to the nature of the proposal and the 2017 Alabama Memorial Preservation Act that prohibits renaming state monuments, City Attorney Lee Roberts presented background information to the council.
Roberts stated that on Forrest Cemetery’s original four plats recorded at the probate county courthouse, the cemetery’s name is spelled “Forest” with one “r.” The chapel, comfort station and front gates were built years later during the Great Depression and all have bronze plaques on them reading “Forrest,” which shares a spelling with Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. With little to no records of an official spelling, when and why the name was changed is murky.
“A cemetery itself is not covered under the state monument act,” said Roberts. “Those three structures clearly are.”
Roberts noted that there are provisions under the national historic act that allow for filing applications and submitting evidence to request changing the name from “Forrest” to “Forest,” and changing the name would not change any lots, paperwork or deed ownership for individuals who purchased burial lots in the cemetery. For those people, it will forever be referred to as “Forrest Cemetery.”
Councilman and District 5 Representative Jason Wilson highlighted similarities between the Emma Sansom resolution and the Forrest Cemetery resolution. He defined what renaming Forrest Cemetery would represent.
“It’s a gesture to a large percentage of our community that we’re trying and we’re willing to talk about it and we’re willing to take steps to ease the pain and suffering in this community,” said Wilson. “Just like [the Emma Samson] resolution, this was a proclamation, not a resolution. It was a gesture – [the Forrest Cemetery motion] is no different. It does not physically impact anyone’s property, it doesn’t change the ownership structure of that cemetery in any way. I just want to make it clear that these two things are very similar in nature.”
Wilson and Councilman and District 2 Representative Deverick Williams expressed their concerns regarding industrial recruitment and the Confederate symbols in Gadsden. Both Williams and Wilson agree that keeping monuments like the Emma Sansom statue deter potential investors and European, Jewish and Asian companies from partnering with Gadsden.
Councilman and District 7 Representative Ben Reed noted that despite the Confederate monuments throughout Alabama, the state still serves as a leader in the automotive industry. He does not feel that keeping the statue will affect Gadsden’s economy negatively.
“The discussion that you heard is nothing more than buried conversation that’s been there all along,” said Williams. “In my opinion, we missed an opportunity to send a message to the world and to our minority constituents that we hear you. We can recover from it, but we missed a great opportunity.”
Williams also offered clarification on his reasons for moving the statue and renaming the cemetery.
“I want to draw a distinction between where I stand and where I think we should be standing versus some of the narratives that are being pushed,” he said. “This should very much be a society versus racism discussion. This is not a black versus white discussion.”
Councilman and District 3 Representative Thomas Worthy expressed his disappointment regarding both outcomes, while councilman and District 4 Representative Kent Back stated that the conversation circulating the statue and cemetery is not finished. Back, who wanted to seek legal clarification from Montgomery before taking action, felt the council might have acted too hastily in their decision.
“It’s not very often that I’m disappointed, but I’m disappointed in the council because we had a chance to move forward,” said Worthy. “It’s okay for now, but there’s going to come a time when [the statue] is going to come down. There’s going to come a time when it’s moved. In order for this city to move forward, we have to.”
“I would say that what we voted on today, with all due respect, was a premature vote,” said Back.
Williams and Wilson both continued to suggest a sub-committee designed to discuss local matters like the Emma Sansom statue and Forrest Cemetery. The committee would include educators, historians, elected officials and a member of the mayor’s staff or cabinet.
“The [Emma Sansom] preservation resolution applied no additional legal protection that monument,” said Wilson. “It was a show piece. It was a way to show certain members of this community ‘they’re not going to touch this monument.’ And I’m fine with that, I get it. That’s the way politics works. But I don’t understand why we couldn’t turn around and do the same exact thing on the next resolution and say, this is democracy. This is compromise. We’ll let you pass your resolution, but you’ll let us pass ours. It sends an olive branch to this community that says we can work together, we can compromise. Both sides can give a little and meet in the middle. But that’s not what happened today.”
District 1 Representative and City Council President Dr. Cynthia Toles concluded the session with a message to the people of Gadsden.
“I know that some of you came to see how I was going to vote,” said Toles. “Some of you are listening to see how I was going to vote. Some of you have even met in groups to discuss how I was going to vote. You elected me to represent you, but you did not elect me to be a puppet on a string to be dangled by any particular group.”
Toles noted that years ago when four black representatives (herself, Worthy and Williams included) made up the majority of the council, no one addressed the Emma Samson issue or the issues circulating throughout Gadsden today. What did happen, Toles said, was the constant badgering and degrading of the city council – especially its four black representatives – for “not doing anything.”
Toles advocated for change in Gadsden and implored residents to consider a quote by a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement that said, “we came as close as we could imagine to police reform in this country and we just settled for toppling statues.” Toles emphasized issues in the criminal justice system that need to be addressed to change how the system affects the injustices of black and brown men and women. She discussed divisions in the movement and warned against people waiting for one spark to ignite a race riot in Gadsden.
Regardless of the session’s outcomes, Toles remains firm in her claim to better the city she and the council represent.
“We need to change,” said Toles. “We need reform. I stand on the side of justice and righteousness and there is no color in that. I’m voting to fight for you. I will fight for you. I will work for you. But I will vote my conscience.”