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Staff file photo by Randall Higgins / The Confederate statue in Cleveland, Tenn. — shown here in 2011 when a its centennial was marked — has become a lightning rod of controversy rousing competing online petitions seeking its removal and relocation and keeping it where it is.

A Confederate statue in Cleveland, Tennessee, has given rise to multiple online petitions, at least one calling for its removal as an icon of racism and slavery, and at least two more calling for it to remain where it has stood for more than a century.

The object at issue is a tall granite statue of a soldier that stands at the intersection of Broad, Ocoee and 8th streets in an historic part of downtown Cleveland near the Lee University campus. The university is named for its second president, F.J. Lee.

The petition calling for its removal describes the neighboring Christian college campus as "teeming with racial and international diversity" and says the statue "breeds discomfort" for students and Cleveland's residents of color, according to information posted on a petition page on change.org. Petitions calling for the statue to stay where it is can also be found at change.org.

The statue was erected and paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis Chapter 900, which opposes the removal and has also established a petition calling for the statue to remain where it is. The statue erected in 1910 was dedicated in 1911, according to historical information on the chapter's website.

The controversy over Confederate monuments and symbols has heated up across the region and nation as calls for removal and some attempts to physically remove them have occurred in places such as Nashville, Dalton, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia. Mississippi lawmakers on July 1 dropped the Confederate flag from the state flag's design.

Opponents of the statue in Cleveland say it should be be removed "as it no longer represents the ideals of the great city of Cleveland," the petition states, and it describes the Daughters of the Confederacy as having a "racist and oppressive history" and contends the statue was intended to intimidate African-Americans and "promote a 'white' America."

Rather than its destruction, however, the petition seeking removal suggests a more suitable location.

"More suitable locations include the statue placed within a Civil War display at the Museum Center at 5ive Points or in Craigmiles House, Cleveland's Public Library History Branch and Archives," the petition states. "These are more appropriate and educational locations where individuals can learn more about this statue's history without holding it in a place of honor.

"Though this symbol is a reminder of our past, it does not represent our future. Because this statue intended to promote fear and segregation, its removal proclaims that Cleveland is intent on recognizing our past and refusing to honor such abhorrent history," the petition states. "To remove this statue shows that Cleveland welcomes and encourages racial diversity and [Christian] values of love and acceptance."

But the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy vehemently disagrees on removal or relocation, vowing, "We will never compromise" on the issue in a statement issued to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

"The United Daughters of the Confederacy have been waiting patiently for the facts to present themselves," chapter president Linda Ballew said in Monday's statement to the paper. "It seems at this time that the records indicate that the UDOC owns the monument and the property it sits on."

Ballew promised the group would remain steadfast.

"Members of the UDOC have unanimously expressed this view, and will never waiver," Ballew said in the statement. "Be assured Cleveland residents: the UDOC believes that the monument stands for all the fathers, husbands, sons and brothers that never returned home from the war."

Ballew, who said many chapter members have Union and Confederate ancestors, blasted naming the organization "racist."

"The UDOC has never been and never will be a racist organization," Ballew said the statement. "The war was fought over 150 years ago. Debating the war could go on forever. We choose to honor all veterans as Americans, as it should be. We cannot be held responsible for what others did."

The chapter also issued a statement recently that was previously issued in 2018 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on its national website, authored by president general Nelma Crutcher. The statement now appears on the national website's homepage.

It reads, in part:

"We are grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own. We are the descendants of Confederate soldiers, sailors, and patriots. Our members are the ones who have spent 125 years [in 2018] honoring their memory by various activities in the fields of education, history and charity, promoting patriotism and good citizenship. Our members are the ones who, like our statues, have stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy.

"The United Daughters of the Confederacy totally denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy. And we call on these people to cease using Confederate symbols for their abhorrent and reprehensible purposes.

"We are saddened that some people find anything connected with the Confederacy to be offensive. Our Confederate ancestors were, and are, Americans. We as an Organization do not sit in judgment of them nor do we impose the standards of the 19th century on Americans of the 21st century."

The petition seeking to remove the statue disputes those intents in the statue, stating:

"This monument was erected to designate honor to the [C]onfederacy and the ideals it stood for – the protection of slavery and secession from the United States. As our society continues to grapple with deep racial discord and tension, we cannot allow this statue — which holds the memory of un-American ideals, racial hatred, and violence — to be promulgated in our city. Though it is essential to remember and reflect on our past, the location of the monument is inappropriate as it is an offensive and harmful reminder of the south's history of slavery and racial oppression."

Cleveland City Councilman Bill Estes weighed in on the issue through an opinion piece published in the Banner last week calling for a unified move and for city leaders to seek a solution.

"Regardless of my personal thoughts, opinions and feelings, I recognize this is a complex issue. This statue does not exist in a vacuum, but has become part of a bigger narrative with many facets and complexities that few have the historical knowledge, time and wisdom to properly understand, myself included," Estes wrote.

"This statue is not the problem, but a symbol for deep and complex problems facing our nation and Cleveland," he said. "These problems do not have easy solutions, but they are worth our attention and efforts.

"If the monument arguments have taught us anything, it is that history matters," Estes said, proposing four steps.

First, Estes plans to recommend moving the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial — erected by Union veterans of the Civil War — from Fort Hill Cemetery to the north side of the Confederate statue's current location. Second, Estes proposed rebuilding the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial to its original design. Third, he proposes to install a plaque between the two markers directing people to the local library's history branch "for context," and lastly, to ask the public library to add a permanent exhibit in the branch focusing on the history of the community as it relates to the memorials.

"Let's take these steps, let's sit down and share a meal, and then let us get to work on the next problem — together," Estes concluded.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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