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Cousins Properties facilitates removal of Confederate statue from Peachtree Street

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove the dates of Samuel Spencer’s life.

By David Pendered

Cousins Properties has succeeded in its call for the swift removal of a statue of a Confederate cavalryman who later was the first president of a predecessor of Norfolk Southern Railway. The statue is at the gateway of the building in Midtown Cousins purchased from Norfolk Southern.

This statue of the founding president of Southern Railway, a precursor of Norfolk Southern, is to be removed and stored because Spencer had served in the Confederate Army. Credit: Bcballard via wikimedia.org

Norfolk Southern has agreed to pay the cost of moving the statue of Samuel Spencer and storing the statue, indefinitely, until Atlanta decides its fate. The city owns the statue. For now, the statue is headed to a warehouse in Lilburn, according to legislation slated for approval April 19 by the Atlanta City Council.

The statue had been a source of Norfolk Southern’s corporate pride since the statue was moved in 2009 from Downtown Atlanta to the Norfolk Southern offices, overlooking Peachtree Street on a site near the High Museum of Art. The bronze statue was paid for with donations from 30,000 company employees and the design team and sculptor, Daniel Chester French, used a similar motif in their statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, according to a report by Atlanta videographer Lance Russell.

Given that the memorial was unveiled in 1919, it qualifies as a “Jim Crow Era” monument that was, “Erected in order to reinforce white political and social power [and it] Advanced Lost Cause mythology,” according to the 2017 report of Atlanta’s “Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy.

The railway has since consolidated its corporate structure to Atlanta, from Norfolk, in a new headquarters on West Peachtree Street.

Cousins bought the old Norfolk Southern office building for $88 million on March 1, 2019, according to Fulton County tax records.

Cousins, acting through a subsidiary, Cousins 1200 Parent LLC, is pushing for the statue to be removed as quickly as possible, according to legislation pending at Atlanta City Hall:

  • “This City Monument is currently located on private property near the Woodruff Arts Center and the property owner needs to remove the Samuel Spencer monument as quickly as possible because the Norfolk Southern corporate headquarters has moved and the new owner of the property requires it’s removal. Norfolk Southern will remove and store the monument at their expense so that the City has time to plan a proper relocation process and select a new site.”

The statue is in imminent danger, according to the legislation:

Norfolk Southern, Peachtree Street

Norfolk Southern has offered to pay to relocate and store the statue of the first president of Southern Railway, who had served in the Confederate calvary, at the behest of Cousins Properties, which purchased the railway’s former building in Midtown. Credit: Kelly Jordan

  • “This monument could become imperiled if not removed quickly. … This monument is now deemed controversial because it was recently published that the railroad founder had served in the Confederate Calvary. Because the historical narrative has changed recently, the best plan is to store the monument until a permanent solution for displaying the monument can be determined.”

The push to remove the statue from public view follows a controversy over Norfolk Southern’s expansion plans in northwest Atlanta at the former Chattahoochee Brick Co. The factory was owned by a former Atlanta police chief and mayor, James English, who used hundreds of leased convict laborers, most of them Black men, to make bricks. Norfolk Southern announced Feb. 18 it was dropping plans to build a transfer facility at the site.

Cousins has a legacy of influential leadership in Atlanta.

Philanthropic work includes that of Larry Gellerstedt, who served as executive chairman of Cousins’ board until 2020, and previously served as CEO and president from 2009 to 2019. Gellerstedt served on the city’s Confederate Advisory Committee, and now serves as vice chair of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which reported in 2019 assets of $721 million, according to guidestar.com; chair of Grady Memorial Hospital Corp.; and on boards including Georgia Power and Metro Atlanta Chamber, according to reports including bio on the Woodruff page.

The Atlanta City Council’s Finance/Executive Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to accept Norfolk Southern’s donation of the cost of moving and storing the statue. The cost was not specified in the legislation.

The statue honors Samuel Spenser, who served 12 years as the first president of Southern Railway. Spencer appears to have been a business dynamo of his era. An abstract of Spencer’s papers at the University of North Carolina observes he was: “president of six railroads, including the Baltimore and Ohio, 1887-1888, and the Southern, 1894-1906. He was a director of at least ten railroads and of several banks and other companies.”

Spencer also was in the Confederate Army and the son-in-law of Confederate Brigadier Gen. Henry Lewis Benning, a Georgia Supreme Court justice and namesake of Fort Benning, located near Columbus.

The UNC collection of Spencer’s papers includes his work with:

  • ‘[I]n particular the Baltimore & Ohio, Southern, Savannah & Memphis, and Long Island roads, and to other companies with which he was connected, including the Columbus (Ga.) water works; Pittsburgh & Chicago Gas & Coal Co;, West Virginia Oil Co.; two coke manufacturing firms; the Union Stockyard Company of Chicago; Westinghouse Electric Corporation of Pittsburgh, including correspondence with George Westinghouse; and New York bankers Drexel, Morgan & Company, for whom he was the railroad expert.
  • “Other correspondents include many national business and political leaders of the post Civil War period, among them his father-in- law, Henry Lewis Benning (1814-1875), Georgia Supreme Court justice and Confederate brigadier general. Also included are Spencer’s detailed letters while traveling in the western United States and Mexico, 1885, and materials, 1915-1919, of his son, Henry B. Spencer, relating to the Tennessee Railway Company. A scrapbook contains clippings, correspondence, and speeches on railroad regulation, 1905-1906.”

 

 

 

 

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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9 Comments

  1. DSO March 29, 2021 9:51 am

    Seems like this may be more akin to abandoned corporate art installation, rather than a confederate statue removal. That is, Norfolk Southern just didn’t take it with them. And now you’ve got a company founder out in front of a random empty building with a new owner.Report

    Reply
  2. CSH March 30, 2021 7:08 am

    I agree that it’s probably just an old statue in front of a building that should be removed because it’s not applicable to new owner. However, if the narrative continues to go back to the man’s history as reason to remove his likeness we are pandering and setting a very dangerous precedent. The story only tells me he was in the Confederate Calvary, but he also was involved in creating many jobs after the war. If we are going to continue down this path, does it mean that we need to wipe the history of everyone because they fought for their country but happened to be on the losing side? Does this mean that everyone who lived in the South and fought in the war should be made a pariah? Does it mean we need to start expelling Germans and their children/grandchildren because they fought in World War II when the Nazi party was in power? We all need to push back and say enough is enough – don’t erase history, just remember it. Learn from it, so we don’t make the same mistakes.Report

    Reply
  3. VMC March 30, 2021 10:13 am

    It seems ridiculous to remove this fine piece of public art because of the subject’s Confederate service. That is not why he is remembered. Who even knew about this? I understand he was an outstanding railroad man beloved by his employees, who commissioned the work.Report

    Reply
  4. Lynda Idleman March 30, 2021 12:16 pm

    I have to agree with the other posts. I have never connected the man and his role in the Confederacy.

    I have always admired this statue because of its sculptor who went on to create Lincoln’s statue at the Lincoln Memorial. There is two other interesting tidbits about Samuel Spencer (found at Wikipedia):

    Samuel Spencer’s career was cut short when he was killed at the age of 59 in a train collision in Virginia before dawn on Thanksgiving morning, November 29, 1906. The Spencer party were in his private car, at the rear of the train, en route to his hunting lodge near Friendship, NC. When the coupling failed on the lead car, the train was left stalled on the track. A following train ran into the stranded cars in the pre-dawn darkness, crushing the Spencer car, killing Spencer & all but one of its occupants.

    Spencer is credited with leading the Southern Railway and the South during a period of unprecedented growth. After his untimely death, 30,000 Southern Railway employees contributed to pay for a statue of him by sculptor Daniel Chester French, which was dedicated in 1910 and stood for many years at Atlanta’s Terminal Station. Following the station’s demolition in 1970, the statue was moved multiple times, first to Peachtree station, then in 1996 to Hardy Ivy Park, and finally to its current resting place in front of the Norfolk Southern building at the intersection of Peachtree Street and 15th Street in Midtown Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  5. Rick James March 30, 2021 12:24 pm

    This whole “Said person is a racist because they were Southern” thing has gone waaaay too far. People truly need to study their existing history, and stop trying to rewrite it… They may actually learn a thing or two.Report

    Reply
  6. BNM March 30, 2021 1:15 pm

    The rest of the story about Samuel Spencer (1847-1906) can be read at Wikipedia and FindAGrave. This is not a Lost Cause statue. It’s a statue to a man who was president of several railroads when he was killed in a train wreck in 1906. His Confederate service as a 16-year-old private is mentioned in only one paragraph of his 14-paragraph obituary.Report

    Reply
  7. Letmesaythis March 30, 2021 3:32 pm

    This statue can be seen in historic photos of the old Atlanta Terminal Station.
    It sat out front, facing the station.
    When the station was razed in 1970/71 the statue was moved.
    FOR THE LOVE OF GOD – can we please teach presentism in our public school and college level history courses?Report

    Reply
  8. Greg Allen Hodges March 30, 2021 5:20 pm

    Who wants to take bets on how long it will take the Coca Cola Company to quickly remove the statue it erected of John Pemberton that stands in front of the World Of Coke ? I certainly wouldn’t bet against it ever happening when corporations (and spineless politicians) can be so easily cowed “because the historical narrative has changed recently.” (Which narrative, and who changed it?)
    And why the heck haven’t the good folks of Inman Park crowded city hall demanding that the name of their neighborhood be changed ? Ditto for that middle school in Virginia Highland. Light those torches and sharpen those pitch forks….there’s still work to be done !Report

    Reply
  9. Davis Porter April 3, 2021 7:44 pm

    If you have seen Oglethorpe’s statue in a Savannah square, walked over the Minuteman Bridge in Concord, peered up at Lincoln in his DC memorial, or toured the campuses of Harvard & Columbia you have seen statuary by Daniel Chester French.Report

    Reply

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