GADSDEN, Ala. (WBRC) - Descendents of the family of Emma Sansom, who aided the Confederacy in the Civil War, have written an open letter supporting that a statue of her be removed from downtown Gadsden.
The letter comes after nationwide civil unrest following the death of George Floyd brings renewed discussion over whether or not to remove the statue.
Read the full letter below:
“We are descendants of Emma Sansom’s family and current or former members of the Gadsden
community. We add our voices to the call to remove the statue at the head of Broad Street
commemorating Sansom and Ku Klux Klan leader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford
The monument was erected to enforce white supremacy in Gadsden, which we abhor and
lament. The only defensible action today is to remove the statue.
Our community may have forgotten why this statue and others like it were erected. We must
remember why in order to take wise action.
According to the Auburn University-supported Encyclopedia of Alabama: “Emma Sansom
(1847-1900) played a heroic role in the Civil War, when as a teenager she led Confederate
general Nathan Bedford Forrest across Black Creek in northern Alabama to capture Union
colonel Abel D. Streight and his raiders in 1863.”
Sansom thus guided to victory the man who would become the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan
as the United States struggled to establish a multiracial democracy.
Support of the Confederacy and white supremacy cannot be separated given the historical
reality: an oligarchy of less than 400,000 enslavers brought about secession and war to guard
their “property rights” over enslaved Black people. Alabama’s secession ordinance in January
1861 foregrounded the hope to “meet the slaveholding States of the South” and set up a new
government. Cherokee County - which Gadsden was a part of in 1861 - voted against secession
in that convention, as did St. Clair County and most northern Alabama counties. This division
among the white ruling class was an early sign of Confederate disunity as many Southerners
resisted the Confederate project throughout the war. Thousands of Alabamians enlisted in the
Union Army, mostly from northern Alabama where slavery was entrenched but less centralized
than in the lower Alabama “black belt.”
Decades after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, the “Lost Cause” came into
existence. The Lost Cause refers to the myth that a unified South fought for a heroic and noble
civilization doomed by fate and the ahistorical “aggression” of the North. The elements that
make up the Lost Cause draw from writings by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and by
Confederate General Jubal Early in the 1870s and 1880s. They revised the history of secession
and war to distance the Confederacy from slavery, focusing instead on antebellum South
Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s “states’ rights” philosophy - itself a platform to justify
Calhoun’s support of what he called the “positive good” of slavery.
The purpose of the Lost Cause was to justify the enslaving oligarchy’s motives and mission in
the minds of white Southerners, most of whom did not own slaves. Its cult conducts an enduring
counter-revolution to deny Black people full citizenship to this day.
The legacy of the enslaving power is violence against Black people up to now. That violence
includes the KKK’s multiple incarnations, the Jim Crow regime, thousands of lynchings, and
repression against Black people struggling for civil rights. Today there are crosses burning in
Alabama in reaction against the Black Lives Matter movement. The Lost Cause is not just a
shameful past wound, its adherents oppress Black people in America to this day.
What motivated the white people of Gadsden to erect this monument to Sansom and Forrest is
just one part of a larger project to retrench white rule and eliminate Black political freedom.
After federally-directed Reconstruction ended in 1877, the white ruling class regained political
control of the Southern states. Democratic Party “Redeemer” governments passed Jim Crow
laws segregating Blacks. The US Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson in 1896 upheld
Jim Crow segregation. From 1890 to 1908, almost every post-Confederate state including
Alabama adopted a new constitution that disenfranchised the Black population.
The wave of post-Confederate activity was a direct cultural outgrowth of the repression wrought
by Southern states against Black people as the Lost Cause cult took hold. This period birthed
the “Dunning School” of historical thought that condemned Reconstruction as a corrupt mistake,
a view modern historian Eric Foner calls “part of the edifice of the Jim Crow system.”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, was the most prolific organization
building Lost Cause monuments. They also enlisted upper- and middle-class white youth and
cultural institutions to carry the flame of the Lost Cause through highly influential educational
campaigns including endorsing a book that lionized the Ku Klux Klan.
The year 1900, when various post-Confederate groups had their first national convention, began
a massive wave of Confederate monument construction on government and publicly accessible
property. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 403 unique monuments constructed to
the Lost Cause from 1900 to 1919, over half of all such monuments standing today.
In 1907, forty-four years after the Black Creek crossing, the Gadsden chapter of the United
Daughters of the Confederacy put up the statue of Emma Sansom and Nathan Bedford Forrest
overlooking the Coosa River. The Etowah County commissioners court, which today is the
Etowah County Commission, also got the Alabama state legislature to fund the statue. Public
money paid for the establishment of this monument and the public must be involved in its
disestablishment. This is not a private matter.
We should remember that the City of Gadsden’s establishment of this statue was only
accountable to the white citizenry. Black people were unable to vote and enjoy representation
during this time due to Jim Crow. It was not a unified city building this monument, but a
segregated racial class directed by the torch-bearers of the Lost Cause. Viewing these statues
in the context of history, it is clear that their purpose is domination of Black Americans struggling
to secure their liberation.
The Sansom and Forrest statue is inextricable from the enslaving power and its twisted
descendant ideologies. The statue’s base honorably depicts the man who oversaw the
massacre of primarily Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow which has been called “one of the
bleakest, saddest events in American military history.” The public celebration of Forrest’s legacy
is shameful, and Emma Sansom’s aid to his cause cannot be separated from its consequences.
They supported enslavers against the liberation of millions of Black people.
The McNeel Marble Company of Georgia, which built the statue, clearly stated what it was
selling in a Confederate Veteran article for its statues proclaiming “SUPREMACY.” The statue is
not a contemporary historical marker; nor is it supposed to be a genuine likeness of Emma
Sansom. Rather, the statue is a political provocation built only six years after Alabama’s
constitutional change shifted the Jim Crow regime into overdrive. Its purpose has not faded. The
statue’s memorial of Forrest and Sansom in 1907 is akin to erecting a statue to segregationist
Birmingham leader Bull Connor today, a man who attacked civil rights protesters including
children with dogs, fire hoses, and mass arrest in the early 1960s.
These monuments do harm lasting for generations when we forget the underlying causes of
division and inequality in society. The roots of Black peoples’ oppression today have a lot to do
with the erection and maintenance of that statue, as does the relatively wealthier position of
white people in our community. To achieve justice, we must remember and then act in solidarity.
The multiracial movement calling for change in Gadsden is made up of our neighbors. They are
not “outside agitators.” They have to live with the Lost Cause’s weight every day—as we all do.
Some white people in Gadsden say they feel a connection to this statue as part of their heritage,
and consider the statue part of the fabric of their home. Our Black neighbors are making it clear
that they agree, and that is exactly why they need to see change in our community. We want to
live in a harmonious democratic society where all can live free of intimidation.
Many people who feel pride about Emma Sansom discuss “division” about the statue like it is a
new phenomenon. The outcry against the statue is the voice of an awakened community. They
understand that it is time to address the focal points of what has really caused a division in our
community for over a hundred years. It only seems like a new “division” to those of us who
benefit the most from the “normal” status quo.
We ask those who may feel a sense of pride about the statue to examine if most of their Black
neighbors feel the same pride. You may say you are not personally racist and have good deeds
to prove it. The statue’s effect in Gadsden is not about anyone’s personal feelings or failings - it
is a feature of the systemic oppression that acts to this day against the freedom of Black people.
Gadsden’s population today is more than one-third Black people. What are we doing with a
monument that celebrates an achievement meant to keep a third of our neighbors in bondage?
Think beyond your personal experience and towards the whole of the Gadsden community. Can
we fulfill our potential as a beloved community if more than one-third of our neighbors are daily
reminded that the town celebrates a time when their relatives were enslaved? Removing the
statue will take a weight off our backs that we may have never recognized.
The debate that considers these statues as “history” today speaks to the success of the Lost
Cause’s cultural hegemony. Yes, we must remember - a history never to repeat. Gadsden does
not have to celebrate a man who led the perpetrators of racist terror. We can leave the Lost
Cause behind, beginning by removing its symbols that haunt us.
Look to the heartening installation of a memorial four years ago to the memory of Black
Gadsdenite Bunk Richardson. In Feburary 1906, Richardson was framed for the rape and
murder of a white woman, taken from the Etowah County jail and lynched by a mob of 25
masked men. This act of racist injustice happened the same year the UDC commissioned the
statue of Sansom and Forrest on Broad Street. Identifying and commemorating the victims of
injustice is a necessary part of making justice possible, and we can all do it together. Those are
the kinds of memorials we need in Gadsden.
We can remove this statue just like other Alabama cities are doing. This month, the mayors of
Birmingham and Mobile authorized and executed the removal of Lost Cause statues. The
University of Alabama Board of Trustees and the Madison County Commission voted to remove
Confederate memorials in recent days. The Gadsden community’s task is neither impossible,
nor a logistical challenge. It is time to make the moral choice - no more Lost Cause in Gadsden.
What does it look like to tell the story of Gadsden that points us towards justice and away from
racialized domination? If the statue of Sansom and Forrest remains standing somewhere when
removed from public view, it needs context showing that it celebrates the cause of human
enslavement - and that today we want to build a society of liberation for all people.
If we are silent, we are complicit in the ongoing injustice against Black people. As Emma
Sansom’s nieces and nephews, the best first step we can take to abolish the stain of white
supremacy in Gadsden is to remove this symbol of the enslaving power that once ruled this
land. We can eliminate the source of division and fulfill the American promise of a democracy
full of equal participants.
We are encouraged by the multiracial makeup of both the BLM protesters and the City Council
members calling for the statue of Sansom and Forrest to be moved. The movement calling to
take the statue down has already made progress in eliminating racial division by standing
together. We stand with them. The promise of a democratic society, where all are created equal,
lies after the statue’s shadow over Broad Street has faded. Remove the statue, and let’s get to
work on building a beloved community in Gadsden and in the United States.
- Donald Rhea
- William Henry Rhea III
- Marie Rhea Singleton
- Richard Rhea
- Kelvin Knight
- Leigh Ann Rhea
- Nina Ellen Rhea
- Anna Rhea Knight Hopkins
- Karen Lynn Knight Craft
- Preston Rhea
- Holly Rhea Hanks
- Laney Rhea Eskridge
- William Henry Rhea IV