Differing opinions emerge ahead of Thurgood Marshall statue council vote in Columbia
The Columbia City Council will vote Thursday evening on a project proposed by the Columbia Peace and Justice Initiative that would include erecting a statue of Thurgood Marshall in the middle of a proposed roundabout at East 8th and South Main streets.
However, county historians say that other figures at the time played a stronger role in the events of 1946 and should be recognized.
Maury County Historian JoAnn McClellan, for example, highlights the area on East 8th Street as a once bustling business district, calling the roundabout a “gateway” to the historic Black business district.
In 1946, when veteran naval officer James Stephenson’s mother was purportedly slapped by white store owner William Fleming at Castner-Knott shop in downtown Columbia over a broken radio, Stephenson and Fleming had an altercation that led to Stephenson pushing the store owner, who fell through the store window, in an effort to defend his mother.
Stephenson was arrested and put on trial, which led to racial unrest in Columbia at the time, culminating when the Tennessee State Troopers ransacked East 8th Street, or “the Bottom” neighborhood, beating stores owners, residents and destroying much property. The store owners in the Bottom fought back, leading to over 100 men being arrested with 25 of them being charged. All men were either released or acquitted but two men.
Marshall, then part of the NAACP, is known for visiting Columbia during the trial and helping to provide council to try the case. However, during the trial, he became ill and was hospitalized in New York for much of the trial. Attorney Z. Alexander Looby instead played a key role in the trial by serving as the lead attorney.
The CPJI submitted a counterpoint letter to the editor, following Price’s comments, highlighting that the Marshall statue is only part of the organization’s plans to highlight the history of 1946 and beyond, citing its vision of a future “pocket park” in Columbia.
JoAnn McClellan, Maury County Historian, recently provided further insight about the statue proposal and the rich Black history of the East 8th Street neighborhood. She called the proposed roundabout a “gateway” to Columbia’s historic Black business district, which should be recognized.
“The roundabout planned for East 8th Street and South Main Streets will sit at the gateway to the historic African American business district and College Hill and East Hill communities. A statue or memorial should not represent a single event or person,” McClellan said.
“Instead it should honor the lives and legacies of the African American citizens of Columbia who worked to build schools, churches, and businesses in he area. that thrived for almost 100 years.
“Without these citizens, there would not have been an East 8th Street in 1946.”
Brian McKelvy, who serves on the African American Historical Society board of directors and the Maury County Historic Society board, said that he agrees with Price’s letter to the editor.
“Although Thurgood Marshall is a renowned individual, he was not lead council on helping the accused individuals get acquitted. Also, he was not nationally prominent at the time,” McKelvy said.
“I feel that the people who were there like Z. Alexander Looby should be recognized. I think the people who suffered through it at the time, should be most prominent in telling the story.”
Local artist and chairman of the Columbia Arts Council Quan McFall shared that he believes it is an opportunity to “set the benchmark” for further educational opportunities and historical markers.
Having the national namesake of Marshall attached to the area’s gateway, McFall said, would likely draw more people in initially.
“The fact that we’re even having talks about a Thurgood Marshall statue is a lot more than we’ve had to begin with, and at this point I’m very much open to having something, as opposed to nitpicking it too much,” McFall said. “If we are really aiming to celebrate all people in general, having something like this out of the gate is a good idea to begin with.
“Why should it stop there? There’s more you can honor in that sense,” he added. “How do you teach someone about unsung heroes? Because there are a lot of people who also had a lot to do with it that we probably don’t even know about.”
Former Vice Mayor Christa Martin, who spoke during the council’s Nov. 2 study session, said that national figures should be celebrated alongside local individuals, especially when the trial reached a national audience, let alone became an historic national movement.
“It is also important that we include our national figures,” Martin said. “As we tell our story, that man was here in Maury County. He is a part of the legacy.”
Mayor Chaz Molder also commented last week about the project and differing opinions.
“Of course, we’ve heard some things about individuals having different opinions about this, and of course everyone’s entitled to their opinion. That’s what makes us great,” Molder said. “There are other individuals that probably played a bigger part, but in my opinion there is no bigger individual to the story in terms of our national history than Thurgood Marshall, and all the things he did in the course of his career.”
Molder also backed Martin and the CPJI’s comments on the magnitude of having a national figure honored who at one time took part in a monumental moment in the city’s history.
“The fact that Columbia is part of his story, such as in his autobiography as a young lawyer being in fear of his life at that time, that is a part of our history and who we are,” Molder said. ” … When they hear Thurgood Marshall, they come and have the chance to learn the other names that deserve recognition as well.”