It all started with a simple walk down Broad Street.
Ever since moving to Augusta from Washington, D.C., about a year ago, Marin Rose Correa and her husband love strolling around downtown, exploring the city they now call home.
“We spend a lot of time downtown and I always stop and read any of the historical markers that I find,” Correa said, explaining that she developed a deep interest in history while living in the nation’s capital.
As they reached the 700 block of Broad Street, Correa noticed a historical plaque with the name of English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray written in bold at the top of the marker. Thackeray is probably best known for his satirical book, “Vanity Fair,” which was first published in 1847.
“I’m familiar with Thackeray, the author, but I haven’t read ‘Vanity Fair,’” Correa said, adding that she began reading the plaque about Thackeray’s visit to Augusta in February 1856.
The historical marker, which was created by the Georgia Historical Commission in 1954, states that Thackeray gave a lecture at Augusta’s “Masonic Hall” on Broad Street as a guest of The Young Men’s Library Association.
“I’m reading that he visited Augusta and he really liked it. He was charmed by it and found it to be sort of cosmopolitan, and I thought, ‘How charming that this English person came and really liked our town,’” Correa said. “And then I got to the middle of the direct quote that the plaque incorporates from Thackeray that apparently he wrote in a letter back home.”
Correa and her husband were horrified by what they read.
The following is the direct quote from Thackeray that is used on the marker:
“Nice quaint old town Augusta, rambling great street 2 miles long, doctors and shopkeepers the society of the place, the latter far more independent and gentlemanlike than our folks, much pleasanter to be with than the daring go ahead northern people. Slavery no where repulsive, the black faces invariably happy and plump, the white ones eager and hard. I brought away 60 Guineas for 2 hours talking, a snug little purse from snug little Augusta.”
Correa couldn’t understand why the Georgia Historical Commission decided in 1954 to use a quote from Thackeray addressing slavery which included the words, “the black faces invariably happy and plump.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe, of all the things that Thackeray had to say in his life as a writer and all the things that he had to say that was nice about Augusta, why would somebody have picked this ugly quote?’” Correa asked. “I can only imagine, if Thackeray were alive today, he would be utterly ashamed of it. He was reflecting a really unfortunate sentiment in his day. I can’t imagine he would feel the same way today. And I was thinking, ‘Why would they put that on the plaque?’”
Correa immediately took a photo of the plaque and decided to do a little research on the historical marker.
In February, she decided to send a letter to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to voice her concern about, what she called, the “horribly offensive quote.”
“I expressed my surprise and disappointment that this was something that was representing this new town that I had come to live in,” Correa said, adding that she felt that the majority of Augusta residents would also find the plaque offensive. “I thought, you know, that is really kind of ugly. That shouldn’t be here. That’s an ugly sentiment that people don’t need to be reading.”
After waiting a couple of months and not hearing from anyone at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Correa began sending e-mails to people within the department.
By late May, Correa was contacted by Josh Headlee, a senior reservation technician for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division of DNR.
After reviewing her initial letter expressing concern over the plaque, Headlee agreed that it may not be appropriate.
“Not only do I agree that the line in the marker may be construed as offensive; but according to my files on that particular marker, it was slated to be changed to have that sentence removed back in 2001,” Headlee wrote on May 29. “However, due to the cost involved with having a new marker cast and subsequent budget cuts the change was scrapped. At this point the state no longer budgets for any marker replacement.”
Without any funding to generate a new plaque, Headlee said the only option available would be to remove the marker.
“If you deem it worthy of being taken down please let me know and I’ll see that the appropriate action is taken to remove the marker,” Headlee wrote.
Less than 10 minutes later, Correa wrote back that she would prefer the marker be removed.
“I’m glad to know that I’m not the first to read or notice the offending language!” Correa wrote. “I do believe that, in the case of this particular marker, removing it entirely is preferable to leaving it in place with the current verbiage. I hope there will be funding in the future for a replacement but in the meantime, there are plenty of nearby markers with great historical information, including the Paine College marker just a block or so away. (“The first educational institution for Negroes to be sponsored in the South by Southern churchmen of both races.”) I think those will enjoy all the more respect without the stain of the Thackeray quote.”
Within literally five minutes, according to the date and times listed on the e-mails, Headlee responded by saying the marker would be taken down.
“The appropriate folks have been contacted to see that the marker is removed,” he wrote. “If in a week or so they have not removed the marker please let me know.”
Later that week, the plaque was removed from Broad Street and Correa said she felt a great sense of accomplishment.
“I went back to the site and took a picture of the poll with the plaque not on it and thought, ‘That’s good,’” Correa said, adding that she wondered whether anyone in Augusta would even notice the marker was gone.
Well, people definitely noticed.
Last week, The Augusta Chronicle initially wrote a story called, “Questions surround Augusta’s missing William Makepeace Thackeray historical marker.”
After a reader had contacted the newspaper regarding the missing plaque, the Chronicle’s online news editor, Billy Kirby, began trying to solve the mystery of the missing marker. He questioned whether it had been stolen or, for some reason, removed by the city’s traffic engineers.
City leaders weren’t aware that the plaque had been removed or was even missing.
“For 60 years, it snuggled up to the front of the former Richmond Hotel in the 700 block of Broad Street, providing the description of antebellum Augusta offered by the writer best known today for his book ‘Vanity Fair,’” Kirby wrote. “No longer.”
A few days later, reporter Walter Jones, of Morris News Service, contacted the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and learned of Correa’s complaint.
When Jones called for a comment, Correa said she was initially excited about the opportunity to talk about it.
“Aside from being proud of noticing it was there and having an opinion about it, I thought it was a good thing for the community to notice and talk about,” she said. “Sort of ask: what is the purpose of these plaques? And where are race relations today?”
But as Correa was being interviewed by Jones last week, she became uncomfortable with the tone of some of the questions.
“He asked what brought me to Augusta. And I said, ‘my husband’s job brought us here,’” she said. “And then he wanted to know what that job was. And I thought, ‘Okay, but how is that relevant?‘ But I told him my husband was an Army doctor at Eisenhower.”
Then, Correa said Jones asked her a “vague” question about whether or not she felt it was appropriate for her to complain about the plaque after having just moved to Augusta a year ago.
“And I asked, ‘So, are you implying that I am a newcomer to town and that it was brazen of me to have an opinion or take action about something that was local when I wasn’t from here?’” Correa asked. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s sort of what I’m asking.’”
Correa said she told Jones that she felt that, as a member of the Augusta community, she had the right to speak her mind.
“Whether I am new or not, or even if I was just a visitor, I saw something that I thought was really offensive to me, but also something that doesn’t appropriately represent the majority of the people or the thinking in this town today,” she said.
As soon as Correa got off the phone with Jones, she felt uneasy about the interview.
“What I took away from it was I’m not going to be happy with this article,” she said. “I’m going to read this article and feel like it is a personal attack on me for not being ‘one of us’ down here. Not being from here.”
That’s basically what happened in Jones’ story titled, “Single complaint prompted Augusta history plaque removal,” Correa said.
Jones wrote in his October 24 story that Correa had “just moved to Augusta several months earlier with her husband who is on duty at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center.”
Correa was given one quote in the entire story to explain her request for the marker’s removal and she feels she was misquoted.
Immediately, the anonymous online comments which followed the story accused her of trying to erase history.
One person even attacked her by pointing out that she doesn’t pay taxes in Georgia because her husband is in the military.
When readers started attacking her husband, that’s when Correa really started getting upset because she felt his job had nothing to do with her objection to the historical marker.
“No. We don’t pay income taxes in Georgia,” she said. “We do, however, own a house and we pay property taxes. Aside from that, what does that have to do with it? I’m still a community member and I’m still an American citizen who pays federal taxes. And no matter where I am in my country, I should have the right to my opinion. And I should have, I think, the responsibility to stand up for what I believe in.”
Headlee, the senior preservation technician for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division, said Correa contacted him and Jeanne Cyriaque, the African American programs coordinator within the department. The two of them together reviewed the historical marker and made the final decision to remove it.
“(Correa) didn’t do anything wrong, from my viewpoint,” Headlee said. “I don’t think she was trying to do anything mean or evil or anything like that. She was writing to try to get information on how it could either be changed or removed. I had received a call from Jeanie, and we kind of consulted and it was decided that, yes, it should probably be taken down.”
While Headlee didn’t have any previous records of specific complaints about the marker, he does believe there have been objections to the plaque in the past.
“All I know is it was apparently slated to be replaced back in 2001. There was a rewording of the marker,” he said. “In fact, it was already written up and it was in my file. It was supposed to be replaced.”
But, apparently, due to budget cuts, Headlee said a new marker was never created.
“So, the fact that it was written up for replacement kind of lends the suggestion that someone had already caught on that there was sensitive wording on that marker and it needed to be replaced,” he said.
Erick Montgomery, executive director of HIstoric Augusta, Inc., said Correa contacted the appropriate agency regarding her complaint. He was simply surprised that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources made the decision to remove the marker without notifying anyone locally.
“I think she went to the right place, but I think the point is: Do you have a knee-jerk reaction every time one person has a complaint?” Montgomery asked. “And do you just remove something that has been here 60 years or so without anybody locally knowing about it? There ought to be some kind of process.”
This issue becomes even more difficult considering the plaque specifically uses a direct quote from Thackeray, Montgomery said.
“Things change, wording changes, but actually that was a quote,” he said. “So, if you decide you don’t want to include that quote, I think that needs to go through some process. But you also shouldn’t change people’s quotations. That’s wrong. So it is a dilemma.”
If the Georgia Department of Natural Resources decides to replace the quote with another comment by Thackeray’s regarding his visit to Augusta, that may prove to be difficult.
After an extensive search, the Metro Spirit could not locate any reference to the quote used on the historical plaque formerly on Broad Street.
However, in the book, “The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Volume 25,” there is a letter addressing his trip to Augusta that Thackeray wrote to a female friend named Kate Perry.
“When I had finished at Charleston I went off to a queer little rustic city called Augusta — a great broad street 2 miles long — old quaint looking shops — houses with galleries — warehouses — trees — cows and negroes strolling about the side walks — plank roads — a happy dirty tranquility generally prevalent,” Thackeray wrote. “It lies 130 miles from Charleston. You take 8 1/2 hours to get there by the railway, about same time and distance to come here, over endless plains of swampy pinelands — a village or two here and there in a clearing. I brought away a snug little purse from snug little Augusta.”
It is unusual because this quote uses some of the same phrasing as the quote on the marker, but never mentions anything about slavery in the South.
But it is true that Thackeray had a strong opinion about slaves when he visited Georgia in the 1850s.
In another letter to Perry, Thackeray also described his observations while visiting Virginia in 1853.
“The negroes don’t shock me, or excite my compassionate feelings at all; they are so grotesque and happy that I can’t cry over them,” he wrote. “The little black imps are trotting and grinning about the streets, women, workmen, waiters, all wed fed and happy.”
Not exactly quotes that would be good material to use on a historical marker.
As a result of Correa’s complaint about the marker and its removal, Headlee said he has been told the Georgia Department of Natural Resources plans to replace the marker with a new one that has more appropriate language.
Regardless of what her critics think, Correa believes Thackeray’s historical visit to Augusta should be commemorated, just not celebrated using a racially offensive quote.
“I certainly do not want to erase history,” Correa said. “I think it is important to remember the tragedies of our past, the shameful things of our past and the horrible mistakes that we’ve made.
“But I feel like there’s a difference between glossing over or erasing that history versus actually sort of celebrating or promoting that history. It’s a fine line, but I think it is an incredibly important one.”
Marin Rose Correa is a professional organizer and a contributing writer to Metro Augusta Parent.