SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. — Emma Sansom is little remembered in Social Circle, the town where she was born in 1847.
But she became an icon of the Confederacy at age 16, helping Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest find his way across a rain-swollen Black Creek in Gadsden, Alabama, in 1863. That act helped Forrest — who later went on to start the Ku Klux Klan — capture the troops of U.S. commander Abel Streight.
Sansom married a year later and moved to Texas in the 1870s. She died in 1900 at age 53.
But her actions live on.
Seven years after Sansom’s death, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument in her honor in downtown Gadsden at the foot of a bridge at the Coosa River.
For years, a high school not far from Black Creek bore her name. (When it closed in 2006 as part of a consolidation with two other high schools, Sansom’s name replaced Forrest’s on a middle school.)
The monument is even prominent on the city’s seal.
Now, though, as part of the national reckoning over race, there is new controversy over the Sansom monument.
There is some support on the Gadsden City Council to move the monument, and a counterprotest Saturday drew several citizens who want to keep it where it’s stood for more than a century.
“This is no time to be bringing up something that makes no difference now,” Denise Dyer Miller, a 1976 graduate of Emma Sansom High School, told The Gadsden Times.
“People’s hearts are what’s going to have to change, not the statue.”
But Black Lives Matter protests have drawn much bigger crowds and city leaders are listening to calls for reform.
“The statues that we have to drive by, look at, hold our nose and bear, are statues that were erected in remembrance of the poorest and weakest moment in this great nation’s history,” Councilman Deverick Williams, who is Black, said during the June 9 council meeting.
“Those Civil War symbols represent something negative for this nation, and they also represent something negative for Black people. Think about what a swastika represents for a Jewish American. That battle flag means the same thing for me. Those statues mean the same thing for me.”
He asked the council to consider moving Emma Sansom statues “as a safety concern to this city,” and to consider renaming a cemetery with Forrest’s name.
Williams noted there was only one incident at a June 7 Black Lives Matter rally, which he said involved “the pro-Confederate monument people.”
“That’s the kind of hate and evil that those statues evoke,” Williams said. “They don’t evoke anything positive.”
But that opinion isn’t unanimous on the council.
“I think it would be a shame to this city take down the monument out there — a farm girl who had nothing to do, did nothing wrong in my opinion,” Councilman Johnny Cannon, a graduate of both General Forrest Middle and Emma Sansom High, said.
“I don’t understand what the statue has to do with George Floyd — not just this statue but all the ones around. … It’s history.”
He said people “need to be worried about people’s lost souls as much as we need to be marching. There’s all kinds of people that don’t know Jesus Christ. We need to get behind that and save some of these souls.”
There is a marker for Sansom’s birthplace in far southern Walton County. United Daughters of the Confederacy groups from Social Circle and Covington met to place a granite tabled there on May 15, 1927.
A chapter of the Children of the Confederacy group based in Emma Sansom was founded in Social Circle in 1928.
In “Wayfarers in Walton,” her exhaustive 1968 history of the county, Anita Sams notes Sansom’s father Micajah was one of the first settlers of Walton County. He established a home here in 1820.
The family moved to Alabama in 1855, and Micajah died four years later.