Thursday evening, the University of Georgia’s Demosthenian Literary Society gathered in Demosthenian Hall for their weekly meeting at 7 p.m., but this week they debated the controversial issue that has taken the nation and state by storm: the removal of Confederate monuments.
The piece of history that was under debate was the portrait of confederate general Robert E. Lee that hangs in the upper chamber of Demosthenian Hall along with several other American leaders, founders of the society and figures in oratory history.
The society voted unanimously to remove the portrait in a 27 to 0 to 1 vote and immediately displaced the artifact from the upper chamber.
“We want to uphold the words of Demosthenes: ‘All speech is vain unless accompanied by action.’"
-Nolan Hendricks, UGA senior and member of The Demosthenian Literary Society
The Demosthenian Literary Society is the oldest student organization at UGA, dating back to 1804, according to the DLS website. The debaters said Lee was added as an honorary member of the society in the late 1860s when he was the president of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University.
The controversial portrait was among several other portraits of prominent leaders on the second floor of the hall, including George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., and the society’s notable alumni, Robert Toombs and Crawford Long.
Warren Furman Smith, a law student from Gainesville, began the debate by arguing the affirmative side, to remove the portrait of the confederate general.
“This debate is not about all the other portraits. This is about a single object, a single thing, a single goal,” Smith said. “Robert E. Lee does not belong in this hall, not in this esteemed hall. The portraits we have here in this upper chamber are not here for a remembrance of history. It is here to honor those before us.”
Smith said the Demosthenians should remove the portrait to move towards an inclusive society.
“I am not saying in the slightest [to] erase history,” Smith said. “I am saying we should make history. That we become the generation of Demosthenians with a rhetoric of truth, love, and understanding, not rhetoric of hate. We cannot change our past, but we can, together, change our future. That is what moving that portrait is about. It is showing that we have a future of an inclusive society. One that recognizes those of all races, creeds, and religions that belong here because that is what open debate is about.”
This year, the society elected their first black female president, Alanna Pierce.
Smith said in his argument that Pierce wouldn't have been able to have this position a century ago because of the society’s “nasty history with race.”
“Robert E. Lee, despite what his partial views were, it doesn’t matter,” said Smith. “His personal views of those that put [his portrait] up there was to send a message to the people of this hall, to the people like our [society’s] president that wasn’t wanted here. That is not a message I think we should follow.”
Lee is an honorary member of Demosthenian.
Nolan Hendricks, a senior risk management and insurance major, began the negative approach to the resolution by arguing that the society should not make the decision to remove the portrait in the midst of national turmoil following Charlottesville.
“There is a wave going around the United States, and it would be foolish of us not to ignore it, after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, that has sparked this conversation,” Hendricks said. “It is obvious to us here that this conversation includes us, us as a society.”
Hendricks’ second contention in the debate was that Lee was born into a white supremacist and racist society.
“When you are born into a society that fuels racism, you become part of that society in itself, and that is wrong,” Hendricks said. “Like Washington, like Toombs, I also believe he belongs on this wall despite of his flaws in his character and despite his actions.”
Lastly, he debated that when the society chose to hang the portrait in the historic building, it was still a racist society.
“There is a wave going around the United States, and it would be foolish of us not to ignore it, after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, that has sparked this conversation.”
-Nolan Hendricks, UGA senior and member of the Demosthenian Literary Society
“Why I have no doubt that original Demosthenians hung this up on the wall, were indeed wrong, were in themselves racist, like most of the others students on this campus,” Hendricks said. “We should acknowledge that and be aware of that fact.”
Gilbert Head, a historian at the Special Collections Library, estimated that the portrait was hung in the upper chamber after 1875 but prior to 1950.
Originally, the society only planned on voting on the removal of the portrait, but after several requests by members, it was decided to immediately remove the portrait from the upper chambers.
Hendricks quoted Demosthenes, the Greek orator and politician, to illustrate the goals of the literary society after the debate.
“The DLS strives not only to speak around the world, but to actively take part in it," Hendricks said. “We want to uphold the words of Demosthenes: ‘All speech is vain unless accompanied by action.’"