Debate continues on Confederate monument in Liberty

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The statue overlooks the historically black section of Fairview and New Hope Cemeteries. Jewell Hall can be seen in the background. Photo by Hayley Michael 

The debate over the Confederate monument in Liberty’s Fairview and New Hope Cemeteries continues as the Liberty City Council seeks legal advice to see what authority they have over the situation. The Hilltop Monitor published an article in October 2020 with information about the push to remove the statue. More information has since emerged.

The Liberty City Council voted 5-3 in favor of having an attorney look into the legal aspects of the land on which the monument sits. Because the land was bought in 1900 by a group of Confederate veterans, the land legally belongs to them and whoever it has been passed down to. However, markers on cemetery land must denote the place a body has been buried. 

Since no human remains have been buried under the monument in over 100 years, the city may have the authority to revest the land back to the city. The attorney is looking into whether this is an option and will update the city council soon. 

Harold Phillips, city councilman for the first ward, recognizes the complexity of the situation. 

“When you purchase a piece of land in a cemetery, it’s to bury a body,” said Phillips. “Since a body hasn’t been buried under that marker, which by the way is not marking any particular person at all, can we take back the land where that monument is and then do something with the monument that’s on the land?” 

Clay Countians for Inclusion is the largest group of supporters for removing the statue. They have gone so far as offering a $10,000 donation towards its removal. The group hopes to increase awareness about racism and inclusivity in Liberty and all of Clay County. They have attended numerous city council meetings and made their position clear: Confederate monuments, specifically the one in Fairview and New Hope cemeteries, celebrate slavery and racism and should be removed. 

Dr. Judith Dilts is a former professor of biology at William Jewell College and an active member of Clay Countians for Inclusion. Dilts said their goal is to “encourage [the city council] to show that the city of Liberty has certain values and does not support racism in any form.”

Clay Countians for Inclusion’s education efforts extend beyond advocating for the removal of the Confederate statue. They have recently started a book club for the community to increase their understanding of racism and its role in Clay County. They also support city council candidates who have voiced their support for removing the Confederate monument.

“It is the city council that will ultimately make the decision about whether they have the will to remove that monument, and if they can’t do it by revestment then they do have other means. That’s why it’s important that whoever gets on the city council has the same values Clay Countians for Inclusion are evidencing as it comes to racism, diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Dilts. 

 A number of Clay County residents oppose the removal of the statue. The more informal group, Save Our Monument, led by Gieselle Fest, has also spoken at city council meetings and insists that the monument is a grave marker for Confederate soldiers. Their Facebook page seeks to find any information about the soldiers’ families and the location of their graves. 

In fact, a bronze plaque was recently added to the monument with the names of 13 soldiers and at least 3 wives who they believe are buried there. As long as the statue is a grave marker, the group argues it cannot be taken down. 

“This is a cemetery. It is a grave marker. If you start to take down a cemetery marker, a grave marker, where do you stop?” said Fest.                       

In addition to the new plaque added to the monument, a security camera has been hung in a nearby tree. The city council did not approve the addition of the plaque or camera and had no knowledge of its placement until a later date. Neither Phillips nor Dilts know who placed the camera there or where the video footage goes, but it is widely believed to be someone from Save Our Monument. 

The camera, hanging from this tree, overlooks the monument. The new bronze plaque with names of soldiers supposedly buried here is placed so viewers’ faces will be caught on camera.  Photo by Hayley Michael

Theresa Byrd, leader of Clay Countians for Inclusion, plans on being buried in the Fairview Cemetery one day. 

“I pray, I ask God, before that day comes, for that monument to be gone, that it will not be lording over that cemetery when I am laid to rest there,” said Byrd.

The city council’s decision on what to do with the monument, whether by revestment or other means, will be hotly contested no matter what the outcome is. Their diligence, however, shows their dedication to making Liberty and Clay County a more inclusive community.     

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