Removal of Confederate monument sparks passionate debate, overwhelming crowd at Franklin meeting

FRANKLIN, Ohio -- Speaking to a City Council meeting so crowded that some constituents were turned away at the door, city manager Sonny Lewis took responsibility Monday night for the removal of a monument dedicated to Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

“I would rather be called a coward than be standing up there two days later lighting candles of a memorial for somebody who has gotten hurt or killed up out there,” Lewis said.

The plaque on Dixie Memorial Highway had gone mostly unnoticed until a similar monument in Charlottesville, Virginia became the focal point of a white supremacist march that resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer.

Since then, the presence of Confederate monuments in public places has become an increasingly fraught subject of debate about whether they represent a valid historical legacy or whether they are merely symbols of a nation that fought to preserve black slavery. Many such memorials have been removed.

Franklin quietly removed its own monument -- which, it turned out, actually belonged to Franklin Township at the time of its construction in the 1920s -- overnight Aug. 16, claiming it interfered with the right-of-way on Dixie Memorial Highway and they planned to return it to the township. Many of Monday night’s meeting attendees said they didn’t buy that reasoning -- some believed it represented an attempt to disrespect the country’s heritage.

The monument before it was removed

“We are coming out and speaking our point of view peacefully and try to get our point across to save history and not let it get destroyed,” Middletown resident Justin Mays said.

Another attendee argued that Lee and the Confederacy didn’t represent the history of Ohio, which was a free state during the Civil War and contributed more troops to the Union army than nearly any other. 

Vice Mayor Carl Bray acknowledged he was unlikely to change constituents’ minds, but maintained that the city’s stated reason for the removal was the truth.

“We know why we did it,” he said.

After the monument was removed, someone put up a crudely drawn sign with a Confederate flag in its place, though that was removed. Demonstrators with Confederate flags gathered at the spot Saturday afternoon.

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