Current efforts to remove a monument honoring Signal Mountain founder/developer C.E. James “don’t pass the smell test,” according to James’ great-grandson.
Chattanooga attorney Stuart James, a former longtime Signal Mountain resident, said Friday that his family is distraught over recent charges that his great grandfather – who, as a developer, literally and figuratively left marks all over Hamilton County– was actually a closet racist.
That charge came from Signal Town Manager Boyd Veal during a July 27 town council meeting highlighted by Mr. Veal’s request that a monument honoring C.E. James be removed from a small park named after the town’s founder/developer.
Mr. Veal told council members that his request grew out of his discovery of several 100-year-old deeds recording the sale of properties on Walden’s Ridge by the Mountain Land Co., operated by James and several family members. Those deeds, he noted, prohibited the “sale, lease or other transfer of property to any negro, mulatto or other person of color.”
The attack on his grandfather probably could have been anticipated, the Chattanooga attorney said, given the current national climate and widespread efforts to do away with numerous historic monuments and symbols.
But what it doesn’t take into consideration, he added, is the fact that C.E. James is a Hamilton County icon who made numerous contributions to local towns and cities.
“He wasn’t in the KKK,” declared the attorney, who has fired off outraged protests on Facebook and elsewhere about the treatment of his great-grandfather. “He wasn’t a Confederate general.”
Instead, his grandson reminded anybody who would listen, C.E. James “built the James Building (Chattanooga’s first skyscraper) . . . He owned a lot of land on Walden’s Ridge . . . (and) built the road up Signal Mountain. He was the town’s first mayor. His son (W.T. James) was the second mayor . . . He built the hotel (which is now owned and occupied by Alexian Brothers). He gave away the land where the (Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club) is now located.
“Are we really going to write him out of history because of a few clauses in some 100-year-old deeds?” he demanded Friday.
The Chattanooga attorney is not alone in his dismay over the treatment of historic monuments such as the one honoring the founder of Signal Mountain.
“We are suffering from ‘monumental’ confusion about historical statues, place names and symbols,” Washington Post columnist Max Boot wrote in a July 23 column.
“We need to draw some fine distinctions here. Study the specifics of each individual to decide whether he or she is still worth honoring,” the columnist argued. “The rule of thumb should be that those who contributed a great deal to the development of our country deserve to be recognized, however flawed they were as human beings.”
For example, Mr. Boot wrote, “(Ulysses S.) Grant fought to defeat the Confederacy as a Union general and then, as president, he fought against the Ku Klux Klan. That far outweighs the fact that he briefly owned one slave whom he freed before the Civil War.”
On Signal Mountain, Mr. Veal’s recommendation that the town remove the monument honoring its founder triggered vigorous debate.
“Why do we need to talk about and discuss this today?”Carolyn Longphre wrote on League of Signal Mountain Voters, a Facebook site maintained by former Signal Mayor Paul Hendricks.
“Mr. James lived when things were different,” she pointed out. “Discussing those times won’t change them. This is ridiculous!”
Van Bunch disagreed.
“Yes, deed restrictions were commonplace,” he wrote. “As were lynchings. It was against the law to integrate at any level in TN from around 1905 until Brown v. Board (of Education) in 1954. I am sure the restrictive covenants for Carriage Hill contain those provisions. White fragility.”
“(M)ore reasons to step back and condemn the practice and not the individuals,” former mayor Hendricks responded.
“(T)imes change,” Jeff Duncan added. “Norms and ideals change, and thankfully so. My deed in Walden contains restrictions against running a brothel, gambling or distilling. Dang it! Should’ve read the fine print before I signed.”
Friday, attorney James said he has not spoken to Mr. Veal or any other current Signal official about the current situation.
Former Mayor Hendricks is a longtime friend, he noted, so he wants to discuss the issue with him before taking any further action.
The deeds “discovered” by Mr. Veal come as no surprise, he noted.
He first saw them 20 to 30 years ago, he said, when he and other family members interested in genealogy were researching their famous developer ancestor.
What’s ironic about the current controversy, he noted, is that his great-grandfather – who relied on attorneys and real estate associates to handle property transfers – probably didn’t even draw up those deeds.
Such clauses were common at the time Signal Mountain was being developed, he noted; any search would reveal hundreds of similar legal documents detailing historic property transfers throughout Hamilton County and the surrounding area.
The full text of Stuart James’ facebook post about his great grandfather reads as follows: