“Burning of Atlanta” Marker Controversy

Not often that historical markers make it into the news.  Usually only in conjunction with dedication ceremonies.  In the case of a marker recently dedicated in Atlanta, perhaps we will end up compiling a history of the history behind the marker.

Recently the Georgia Historical Society placed a marker to the Burning of Atlanta (and one of our HMDB contributors was there for the dedication).  The marker is placed in proximity to the Georgia Railroad Depot, generally where Union troops started fires in November 11, 1864 that famously burned a significant part of the city.  The marker stands at the corner of Central Avenue and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.

Photo by David Seibert, courtesy of HMDB

Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.  Not far from the church where Dr. King once preached.

That has raised some concerns.  Reverend R.L. White, local NAACP chapter president responded “It strikes us as a kind of in-the-face thing.  We know that history is history and we seek not to try and get rid of history, but we say that plaque could have been placed in a different place.” (Quoted from an Associated Press article run in the The Republic, Columbus, Ohio.)   Reverend White also said, “It’s in your face to be on MLK, who is associated with liberation and freedom.” (from an Atlanta Journal-Constitution news article).

In response, W. Todd Groce, President of the Georgia Historical Society, said “I’m trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do with this.” (from the same AP story cited above).

Several provided defense of the location choice.  Perhaps the most direct was Atlanta City council-member Michael J. Bond, “The basic roots of freedom for African Americans effectively began in this spot.”   Bond continued, “It’s kind of a schizophrenic idea of acknowledging, hey, we’re going to rise from our own destruction but not acknowledging that very same destruction.”  (from the same AP story cited above.)

Let me add from a “marker” stand point, until this month, visitors to Atlanta had very little public interpretation discussing the burning of Atlanta, and that was decidedly one-sided.  Consider the “Eternal Flame” in the nearby “Underground.”   For those who perhaps miss the symbolism, consider when that flame was lit – at a “Gone with the Wind” commemoration.   Nothing, I would say, short of Stone Mountain speaks more to the “Lost Cause” in the  Atlanta area.

Indeed, the marker’s text does roll back some of the myths long presented in the interpretation and popular culture with regard to the burning of Atlanta.  Perhaps if nothing else, it serves to help “redeem” Sherman’s oft defamed reputation.

I have a great deal of respect for Hermina Glass-Avery, at Kennesaw State University.  As the associate director for the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era, she spoke at the marker dedication, which I’d encourage readers to take a moment to hear. Personally I think she hit it on the mark –

“This marker dedication is most appropriate for this site because it offers authenticity of setting and context. This is the location of the burning of Atlanta and this is the place to have it. And to have it elsewhere is akin to heresy.”

It is indeed time we start talking about the links across our history and heritage.  We’ve long held to vertical or “siloized” interpretations of history.  Let’s start looking at history from the horizontal.