A statue of a 9-foot mustachioed man is covered up and lying on the ground of a loading dock in downtown Nashville. The top of his head is missing, and it looks like someone might have taken a crowbar to his right arm. He’s been here since protesters knocked him off his pedestal during the racial justice protests last year.
And it’s unclear when — or where — he might move.
“It could take six to nine months to actually get the statue repaired,” says John Hull with the state’s Department of General Services. “So, obviously, it is here. We haven’t sent it out to do that at this point.”
This statue of politician and newspaper editor Edward Carmack was first removed in the 1950s for the construction of the tunnel under the Tennessee State Capitol. And even then, people argued against his reinstatement.
Now, history repeats itself.
That’s because in life, in death, and in memorial, Edward Carmack was not very popular.
“He’s always been somewhat of a controversial figure,” says Tennessee State Museum curator Annabeth Hayes, “even when the statue was being put up.”
Carmack was memorialized for being a staunch prohibitionist and getting killed over it. But what he might be most known for are his racist editorials and his feud with journalist and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.
In 1892, Wells wrote about the lynching of three Black business men in Memphis, elevating the story to a national level. And Carmack called for his paper’s readers to retaliate against her for it. He called her the “Black wench.”
“He essentially incites a mob in his newspaper against Ida B. Wells and runs her out of town,” Hayes says.
That history is the likely reason that several unknown protesters pulled Carmack from his prominent position at the capitol at the start of the racial justice protests last year.
“It’s a heavy statue. … It would take at least 15 people to push that thing over,” says protester Angel Stansberry. “Group effort.”
Shortly after the statue came down, Stansberry and other protesters staged a 62-day occupation of the plaza by the capitol. Calling it “The People’s Plaza,” they protested against racism and police brutality, and demanded Confederate statues be taken down. Many of the protesters were arrested, including Stansberry.
While the statue is gone, Carmack’s plaque remains. It doesn’t mention his opinions on lynching or his feud with Ida B Wells.
“Since she was such a victim of his hate we just think it’s rightful and just that she replace him here at the People’s Plaza,” Stansberry says.
But to her, this debate is bigger than statues. It’s about representation.
Who does Tennessee memorialize?
She says everything about the capitol — from the statues to the people who work inside — are not reflective of Tennesseans.
Tennessee’s legislature is 86% white and 83% male. The capitol’s statues don’t fare much better — more than 75% of them are of white men.
That leaves people of color out.
“I think Tennessee doesn’t just have a disregard for the suffering of Black America but they seem to have a penchant for wanting to glorify racists and those who have oppressed Black America systematically,” Stansberry says.
She says Carmack’s statue, and Andrew Jackson’s, and the bust of KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest inside the Capitol, say a lot about who the state memorializes. Monuments like these have not aged well, she says.
Even the person who has the best shot at picking the statue to replace Carmack isn’t sure we should be memorializing anybody.
“I’ve never been a particularly big fan of statues and monuments in the first place,” says state Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville. “But I think there are individuals who I think do rise to that level. And I think Davy Crockett is one of those.”
Despite his reservations about monuments, Hawk is leading an effort to commission a statue of Tennessee soldier Davy Crockett. It isn’t clear yet where the statue would go.
He says protesters helped circumvent the lengthy and arduous legal process to take statues down in Tennessee by bringing Carmack down themselves.
“It became somewhat opportunistic that as we’ve been working on the Davy Crocket statue for the better part of a decade, that now the location where we hoped to put Crockett all along was … vacant,” he says.
But Crockett himself is not without controversy. While he was a famous frontiersman, he also participated in a massacre of Native Americans in Alabama — showing that it can be dangerous to try and put anyone on a pedestal.