FRANKLIN, Tenn. — For decades, when Hewitt Sawyers drove past the monument of the Confederate soldier standing tall in his city’s public square, he felt the weight of slavery’s long shadow.
Mr. Sawyers, 73, had attended a segregated school in Franklin, about 20 miles south of Nashville. He read from torn books passed down from the local white high school. The courthouse offered a “colored” water fountain, and the movie theater did not welcome him on the lower floor. As Confederate monuments across the South began to come down after a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he wanted the 37-foot local statue, known as “Chip,” gone, too.
“Chip represented a large part of the reason I was not part of the downtown arena,” Mr. Sawyers, a Baptist minister, said. “Every time I went around that square, it was a reminder of what had gone on.”
Mr. Sawyers and like-minded residents did not get the statue removed, but they have come up with a provocative response to it: a new bronze statue in Franklin’s public square depicting a life-size soldier from the U.S. Colored Troops, largely Black regiments that were recruited for the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
The new monument, which was unveiled Saturday before a crowd of hundreds, and five recently added markers tell the story of the market house where enslaved people were auctioned and the role that local Black men played in fighting for their freedom. Dubbed the Fuller Story, the four-year project led by Mr. Sawyers and three other local residents expanded the narrative of why and how the war was fought.
“Here is a Black man who was enslaved, who gave his life to go out to help free other people,” Mr. Sawyers said. “To be standing here, now, in the face of a statue that represents enslaving those people and to know that, because he was willing to do that, we won — what a powerful message.”
Franklin, a city of about 80,000 people, is in the wealthiest and fastest growing county in the state. Long known for its wide swaths of green pastures, it is now an economic hub for major corporations. Much of its tourism and identity centers on Civil War landmarks, with visitors touring Carnton, a farm that became a field hospital and burial ground for Confederate soldiers, and Carter House, a Confederate home engulfed in the gruesome Battle of Franklin. The seal of Williamson County, where Franklin is located, includes a Confederate flag and cannon.
That the Fuller Story project gained unanimous approval from city officials marks a significant evolution in how the community memorializes the Civil War.
“It was long overdue to tell people not just the U.S. Colored Troops story but this very impactful story of the Black experience during the war,” said Eric Jacobson, a local historian who worked on the project. “A lot of people just didn’t know about it.”
Dana McLendon, a city alderman for 24 years, called it “probably the single most important thing we’ve ever done.”
The effort began in 2017, in response to the racist violence in Charlottesville, when a white pastor, Kevin Riggs, said at a public gathering that it was time for the local Confederate monument to come down, a proposal that was met with death threats and angry voice mail messages.
Supporters also became cognizant of the legal hurdles they would face. The Confederate monument had been there since 1899. It was installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, with the figure’s hat chipped in the process, creating its enduring nickname. A 2013 state law had imposed new restrictions on removing memorials.
Mr. Jacobson had an alternative idea: Rather than focusing on removing the Confederate statue, he said, Franklin should share stories of local African Americans relevant to the Civil War. The group eventually raised $150,000 in private donations to make it happen.
The five markers placed in front of the courthouse and by the square’s center were erected in 2019. The large placards describe the experiences of African Americans before, after and during the war and include photographs and illustrations from that era. One includes advertisements for auctioning enslaved people for cash or credit.
“You can hear all these romanticized, ‘Gone With the Wind’ stories of slavery, but here is the reality: Where you are standing, men, women, boys and girls were bought like cattle,” Mr. Riggs said. “This happened.”
Joe Frank Howard, a sculptor from Columbus, Ohio, created the U.S. Colored Troops statue, named “March to Freedom.” The soldier stands with his foot planted on a tree stump and holds a rifle across his knee. Broken shackles lay under him. The title refers to the marching of the soldiers before battle but also encompasses the marches that took place throughout the fight for civil rights, said Mr. Howard, 73.
“The first step toward true freedom for people of color in America was that war,” he said.
About 180,000 Black soldiers fought for the United States during the Civil War. Still segregated from white troops as they fought, they often faced brutal consequences if they were captured by Confederates.
“I’ve seen a whole lot of Confederate statues in my day,” said Chris Williamson, a pastor in Franklin who also led the effort. “But I have never seen a statue of a United States Colored Troops soldier in person.”
He added, “Image matters. Representation matters.”
There are several other monuments and a few statues across the country commemorating Black Civil War soldiers, including memorials in Boston; Lexington Park, Md.; Vicksburg, Miss.; and Washington D.C. Another is set to be unveiled in Wilmington, N.C., in November.
Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, commended the Fuller Story, especially in light of Tennessee’s restrictive preservation laws, but said the two statues should not be conflated as offering a balanced view of the war, given the Confederacy’s aim to prolong chattel slavery. “They are not the same,” Ms. Brooks said.
Franklin’s elected leaders, united on the Fuller Story’s approval, remain divided on whether the Confederate statue should be removed.
“Part of what makes Franklin Franklin is our history,” said Alderman Margaret Martin. “He was right where he needed to be.”
Mr. McLendon is among those who would like to see it moved to the Carnton cemetery. “If you go read the words inscribed on the statue, if it doesn’t make you more than a little uncomfortable in 2021, then I guess, maybe go try again,” he said. (“No country ever had true sons, no cause nobler champions,” the inscription reads. “The glories they won shall not wane from us.”)
Any effort to relocate the statue is further complicated by a new agreement between the city and the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which objected to the Fuller Story project’s location and claimed ownership of the land. The city filed a lawsuit, seeking a judgment on ownership, and in a settlement, deeded the group the land directly under the Confederate monument. Should anyone seek its relocation, “we’ll fight that tooth and nail,” Doug Jones, an attorney representing the United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter, said.
Mr. Williamson said he has received pushback from some Black residents disappointed that the Fuller Story did not go far enough in changing the face of Franklin’s downtown. If others want to push for the Confederate statue’s removal, that is their prerogative, he said, but with “March to Freedom” now in the public square, he has moved on.
“I’m excited about the stories we are telling that haven’t been told,” he said. “I ain’t got time for Chip.”