Stone Mountain Park CEO proposes potential changes to the park

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association met on Monday, April 26, at location for its first board meeting under new chairman, the Rev. Abraham Mosley. The board heard proposals from Stone Mountain Park CEO Bill Stephens on ways to move the park forward. The meeting was live streamed on Facebook via the Stone Mountain Action Coalition. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Stone Mountain, GA — Changes may be coming to Stone Mountain Park as local officials search for a compromise on how to move forward amid the debate over the large Confederate memorial.

Stone Mountain Park CEO Bill Stephens on April 26 presented new ideas and changes for the state-owned park at the Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s first meeting of the year. The board also has new leadership: the Rev. Abraham Mosley, the first Black chairman of the association.

Stephens acknowledged that the proposals are unlikely to make anyone happy. Groups such as the Sons of the Confederate Veterans don’t want anything to change, while many activists and Democratic state lawmakers have called for change, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Stephens hopes to find a “reasonable, common sense middle ground which recognizes both history and heritage,” that also complies with the state laws that protect Confederate monuments, he said.

Park officials proposed a plan that would expand exhibition space to create more room to tell a more complete story of the Confederate monument carved onto the side of Stone Mountain. The proposal also included moving the Confederate flags near the carving.

“Some people look at the carving and see heritage. Other people look at the carving and see hate but the truth of the matter is it’s a very complex story,” Stephens said. “The carving is three acres of solid granite on the side of the mountain and it’s really not going anywhere, so we need to tell its story.”

Stephens’ recommendations additionally included adding a new “faith and freedom” chapel on top of the mountain. The changes could cost at least $1.2 million if approved by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board in May, according to the Georgia Recorder.

The carving would remain with no changes under the proposal. It is the country’s largest Confederate monument and is protected under state law, though the law hasn’t stopped other communities like Decatur from removing their monuments.

During public comment, state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, said he sponsored a bill that would give the board more room to make changes. He encouraged the Stone Mountain Memorial Association to adopt the changes presented at the meeting, but to also do more.

“Those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it, but I want to add a second verse to that and that is those who learn from their history and don’t make amends to the errors are just doomed,” Mitchell said.

Under the proposal Stephens presented, some street names could change to honor significant Georgians but the main roads in the park, like Robert E. Lee Boulevard, will remain. The board could also consider changing the logo to one that focuses more of the natural landscape of the park rather than the carving.

Confederate Hall, which serves as the headquarters for park staff and other educational programs, could also be renamed to Heritage Hall or another option.

Stephens also outlined some financial concerns. Park revenue fell to $22 million last year from $49 million in 2019.

He said much of that was due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the park has lost existing sponsorships and had corporations decline to host events at the facilities due to “the Confederacy issue,” according to the AJC.

Marriott, the park’s primary hotel and conference center, plans to pull out of the park next year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. The AJC reported that Silver Dollar City-Stone Mountain Park also notified the board that it plans to end their relationship in August 2022.

Stephens has had conversations with other potential sponsors but they said that unless the board does something about the Confederacy issue, they’re not going to bid on a contract, he said.

The board did not vote on the proposals Monday afternoon, but is expected to do so as early as next month.

The Stone Mountain Action Coalition has pushed for comprehensive changes to the park for months, the AJC reported.

“It’s a good first step, maybe,” SMAC member Bona Allen said. “But I don’t think it goes nearly far enough.”

Allen described himself as a son of the Confederacy as many of his family members fought for the Georgia contingency of the Confederacy. But he said the celebration of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain Park is not his family’s legacy and he’s standing up for what is right.

“It’s not our history. It is used to oppress people, it is used to suppress people, and it’s used to intimidate people,” Allen said.

Allen added that bigger changes need to be made and said the board has the authority, ability and obligation to remove the Confederate symbols without delay.

Teresa Hardy, president of the NAACP DeKalb also advocated for the removal of the Confederate symbols throughout the park.

“We are calling for the three Confederate figures on the mountain to be resculptured,” Hardy said. “We’re calling for all references to be eradicated with the street names and other designated facilities. We are also asking that this park be repurposed.”

Two people also spoke in defense of Stone Mountain Park. Tim Pilgrim, the Georgia division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, offered alternative proposals for the park to shift to “heritage tourism.”

“Heritage tourism is by far the highest revenue generating type of tourism proven to increase attendance and just as importantly, heritage tourism complies with the statutory mandate as required by state law,” Pilgrim said.

Visitors want to come to the park to see the antebellum South, he added.

“They want to see soldiers. They want to see period characters. They want to see living history demonstrations. They want to see Gone with the Wind, Tara,” Pilgrim said. “This is especially true for foreign visitors.”

The proposal gives the park a centralized theme, something Pilgrim said the park has been missing for awhile.

As the division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Pilgrim travels across the state and he said that Georgians are very passionate about Stone Mountain Park and the memorial carving.

“Any changes that are not in accordance with the park statutory mandate as a memorial to the Confederacy is not going to fare well with the citizens of Georgia,” Pilgrim said.

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