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Online petition calls for removing Hiram Parks Bell statue from downtown Cumming
Hiram Parks Bell

To some, Hiram Parks Bell is known as one of Forsyth County’s first preeminent citizens, a notable author, attorney and statesman during the mid- to late-19th century.

To others, he is a white supremacist, a former Confederate colonel and slaveowner who called the Ku Klux Klan a “saving factor” during Reconstruction in the South.

That’s why Fernanda Lima has started an online petition calling for the removal of a statue honoring Bell in downtown Cumming.

“This monument should be taken down immediately so that our black community members begin to feel loved and protected by our city the way they deserve to be,” Lima wrote on Change.org.

Lima started the petition on Monday after reading a letter to the editor in the Forsyth County News by Patrick Phillips, author of “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” who wrote to express admiration for peaceful demonstrations in downtown Cumming over the weekend calling for racial equality.

But among the pictures of protesters holding signs and chanting, Phillips also saw Bell’s statue. Phillips said the statue is a “monument to bigotry” and a “blight on the face of the city” and urged community leaders to take it down.

Intrigued, Lima, an 18-year-old who recently graduated from South Forsyth High School, promptly did her own research and “found some pretty awful things about who he was and what he stood for,” she said.

Inspired by the weekend demonstrations, and seeing no petition already calling for the statue’s removal, Lima started one with the goal of collecting 250 online signatures. It currently has over 470. Her new goal is 500. 

“I hope that since our city is trying to move forward from our racist past, this can help us take another stance on racism,” Lima said.

Phillips’ letter and Lima’s petition have pulled Forsyth County into the kind of tangled conversations about what to do with public tributes to Confederate-era events and figures that communities have been having around the country again following the death of George Floyd.

Just this week, the city council in Asheville, N.C., voiced support for taking down two Confederate monuments in its downtown district. Yesterday, the mayor of Jacksonville, Fla., announced 11 monuments and historical markers will be removed. 

“We hear your voices,” Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said. “We have heard your voices.”

Tricky figure

Hiram Parks Bell is one of the most memorialized figures in Forsyth County. 

In 1998, the state gave Forsyth County its own judicial circuit and named it after Bell, who had his start as a young lawyer in Cumming. The Bell Research Center, a genealogy and history center near the square, takes its name from the man considered to be one of the county’s first preeminent citizens, as does the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to honor the former lieutenant colonel who commanded the 43rd Georgia Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.

Bell was born in 1827 in nearby Jackson County. His father was from North Carolina, his mother from a well-known Georgia family. When Bell was 13, the family bought land in Forsyth County and built a home. 

Bell didn’t attend formal school until he was 20 years old, according to Frank Clark, director of the Bell Research Center, but within two years he advanced enough to become one of the county’s earliest teachers. A few years later, Bell passed the bar and began to practice law throughout North Georgia.

Bell’s stature grew during the Civil War, during which he was seriously injured in battle. He went on to serve several terms as a state senator and U.S. Congressman while maintaining his law practice out of Cumming. Bell died in 1907 at 80 years old and was buried in what is now the Cumming City Cemetery.

06112020 Hiram Parks Bell grave 1
The Col. Hiram Parks Bell Chapter 2641 United Daughters of the Confederacy celebrate their namesake’s 188th birthday at his grave in Cumming Cemetery on Jan. 24, 2015 - photo by File photo

Eager to infuse the downtown square with public art, while honoring the area’s history, Bell’s statue was installed in front of Cumming City Hall in 2002. Local residents, civic groups and businesses, including the Northside Hospital Forsyth, the then-Cumming/Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and the Forsyth County News, made donations to fund the project. In 2004, the statue was dedicated with a plaque describing Bell as “an author, attorney, statesman and respected Confederate colonel.”

Depicted in civilian dress, Bell holds a cane in one hand and a copy of his autobiography, “Men and Things,” in the other. Published near the end of his life, the book is Bell’s account of his life, from his formative years in Forsyth County to his early career in law, as well as remembrances of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“Men and Things” is also the source of Phillip’s and Lima’s resentment toward Bell’s statue. 

In the book, Bell describes the Ku Klux Klan as “a saving factor in the preservation of order and the prevention of lawlessness” during Reconstruction. 

“The history of the negro race is a sad one,” Bell writes. “It has been the sportive plaything of capricious fortune. Its destiny has been wrought by agencies over which it had no control. Hugging for countless ages the torrid zone, the influences of habit and climate developed the animal nature and emasculated the intellectual and moral powers, leaving barbarism as the result.”

Bell goes on to say that “neither history nor tradition brings from them any contribution to civilization in the achievement of arms, the discoveries of science, or the inventions of art.”

In another passage, Bell recounts when King David Kalakaua of Hawaii addressed the U.S. Congress in 1874. Bell looked at Kalakaua, turned to a fellow Congressman, and said, “Yes, that negro would have brought $1,500 on the block in ante-bellum times."

Bell owned at least two slaves, according to his book.

All of which makes Bell a tricky figure to memorialize, says George Pirkle, a member of the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County and lifetime Forsyth County resident.

“He had so many facets,” Pirkle said.

On the one hand, Pirkle said, there was the Bell who was a leader in the community as a teacher and attorney, who twice voted against secession at Georgia’s convention in 1861, who represented Forsyth County and Georgia in the U.S. Congress, and who furnished his slaves with clothing, furniture and a wagon when they were freed.

“But,” Pirkle said, “if they really cared for their slaves, they’d have released them.”

‘We do not tolerate racism’

After Lima read about Bell, she was convinced his statue needed to come down.

“Although the statue memorializes someone who did do good things for the city,” Lime said,” he was ultimately a white supremacist.”

But removing a public monument of a soldier is currently against the law in Georgia.

Under O.C.G.A. 50-3-1, public monuments that honor a former military member, including those from the Confederacy, can’t be relocated to museums, cemeteries, or mausoleums “unless it was originally placed at such location.” If the city of Cumming wanted to move the Bell statue, it would have to be put somewhere “of similar prominence, honor, visibility, and access.”

According to Cumming City Administrator Phil Higgins, removing the Bell statue would require the Georgia General Assembly to change the law, followed by a vote from the five-member Cumming City Council.

“I can't stress enough that under Georgia law it is illegal to remove any monument of a soldier,” Higgins said. “Hiram Parks Bell was a Confederate colonel.”

Frank Clark believes Bell’s statue should remain in the Cumming square. By the statue’s design, with Bell dressed in regular clothing, rather than the military attire of a Confederate soldier, Clark said the city tried to emphasize Bell’s place in county history as a member of one of the area’s founding families, a leader in the early rural community and one of its first prominent citizens, not his views on race.

“You’re talking about founders,” Clark said. 

For Lima, the statue is a symbol of white supremacy and a painful reminder of it to Forsyth County’s black residents. 

Removing the Bell would send a message about where Forsyth County stands, Lima said.

“This can help us take another stance on racism,” Lima said. “I hope that this will show our citizens and surrounding counties that we do not tolerate racism and white supremacy, and that all people are welcome in this county.”