Somewhere in Warren County, Robert E. Lee is hiding out, waiting for controversy to die down after absconding in the night.
Not the real Lee, of course — he’s been quite dead since 1870. But in the early morning hours of Aug. 16, crews working for the city of Franklin removed a plaque with his likeness and a stone it is presumably still attached to that once occupied the side of Dixie Highway (Old U.S. 25) and Hamilton-Middletown Road.
That move follows national uproar over a rally in Charlottesville, Va. where an Ohio white supremacist protesting the removal of similar monuments to Confederates caused the death of an anti-racist protester when the white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people.
Anti-racist activists from Dayton announced a rally advocating the memorial’s removal set for the weekend of Aug. 19. But before that could happen, the city removed it.
Officials with the city handed the monument honoring the Confederate general over to Franklin Township officials, who wanted it left up.
“I truly think the history of these markers and the concept of them being racist or unfair to people is blurring the lines between history and opinion,” township trustee Brian Morris told the Middletown Journal News of the monument. “I sympathize with anybody who has been treated unfairly in the past because of their ethnicity. However, these items are our history and we can learn valuable lessons and continue to learn.”
But, as it turned out, it wasn’t the township’s call. The land the monument occupied once belonged to the township, but sat in an easement to the highway annexed by the city in the 1980s.
The city wrung its hands about what to do with the big rock bearing a memoriam to the military leader of the Confederacy. Some, including Vice Mayor Carl Bray, thought it should be left up. But the city opted to remove it, though it says it’s doing so only to protect the monument and return the township’s property to its rightful owner.
“Right of ways must remain clear to avoid the creation of a public safety hazard,” a statement from the city released before the monument was removed said.
Some residents of Franklin were upset to learn the monument was removed. About a dozen protesters showed up Aug. 19 with confederate flags to decry removal of the memorial. And an overflow crowd filed into Franklin City Council’s Aug. 21 meeting to speak against — and in a few cases, in favor — of removing the monument.
““They’re destroying our history all over America, everyone is,” an attendee named Robert Fisher Jr. said.
Racial justice activists, however, cheered the city’s decision, even if it was a practical instead of social measure.
“I’m glad to hear this is going to get removed,” Black Lives Matter Miami Valley’s Yolanda Simpson wrote on Facebook. “I’m sorry some in the city of Franklin don’t see this as an incredibly positive move forward.”
Afterward, the city explained that the late-night removal was for safety reasons, not any kind of secrecy.
So, wither will Lee go? It’s unclear. Township officials say they’ve been instructed by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office not to comment about the memorial or its whereabouts for fear of violence or vandalism.Franklin Mayor Dennis Centers suggested the plaque go to a museum.
It’s the latest weird chapter in the monument’s odd and unlikely history. CityBeat tracked the monument down a couple years ago (see “Ohio’s Strange Monument Honoring Robert E. Lee,” issue of Aug. 11, 2015).
The monument’s origins seems to date to the highway’s construction in 1927, when it appears it was placed there by the United Daughters of the Confederacy “in Loving Memory of Robert E. Lee and to Mark the Route of the Dixie Highway,” as the plaque says.
The Daughters of the Confederacy placed three such memorials in Ohio. The other two mark cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried. A number of other, similar memorials line sections of the Dixie Highway in other states.
The monument, little-noticed, was re-dedicated in 1981 after a car hit it, but had seemingly slipped from general public consciousness again until recently.
Lee was commander in chief of the Confederacy’s army, leading it in battles during which hundreds of thousands of Americans died. Some historians suggest he fought for the Confederacy because of loyalty to his native Virginia.
But he was also a slave owner who opined in an 1856 letter to his wife that while slavery was evil, it was also beneficial for black people and that the “painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction.”
In case you were worried about the awkward blank spot left by the rock bearing Lee’s likeness, rest easy. Someone has placed a yard sign with a confederate flag there.
“Robert E. Lee Monument 1927 Franklin Ohio,” the sign reads in scrawled marker. “We do not negotiate with terrorists. BLM (Black Lives Matter) is a terrorist organization.” ©