A New Girl Scout Merit Badge: Scrubbing a Symbol of Segregation
Posted February 5, 2018 7:40 p.m. EST
SAVANNAH, Ga. — The bridge that carries Highway 17 into Savannah is hard to miss: Its H-shaped towers are among the tallest structures for miles. But many people in the city would like never to lay eyes again on the green and white signs that say the span honors the segregationist former Gov. Eugene Talmadge.
“We would never take the worst parts of his speeches and put them up on big billboards over the bridge and say, ‘Well, welcome to Savannah, here’s what we stand for,'” said Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society, which is based here. “But having his name on that bridge is tantamount to doing so.”
Residents of Savannah have been trying for decades to get the state to rename it, only to see their efforts sputter and die in the backrooms and boardrooms of Atlanta, the capital.
But this year is different, and state lawmakers could vote in the coming weeks to give the bridge a less controversial name. And it all may be because of two new factors in the equation: a bit of legal detective work and the Girl Scouts, hundreds of whom are planning to descend on the Capitol this week to argue that the bridge should celebrate Juliette Gordon Low, the Savannah native who founded their organization.
“Ms. Juliette was really influential in changing the public’s opinion on women, and how women can do whatever they set their minds to, and that girls can also grow and learn to be their own independent person,” said Sydnie Roberds, 15, in an interview at the group’s first headquarters on Drayton Street here.
The Scouts, including Sydnie, will hold a milk-and-cookies reception at the Capitol on Tuesday, when Ron Stephens, a Republican state representative from Savannah, is expected to introduce a proposal to name the bridge for Low. To bolster their efforts, the Girl Scouts have also hired a lobbyist (a former Scout herself) to help make their case in Atlanta.
In a region known for painful battles over monuments to controversial historical figures, even the persuasive power of Tagalongs and Thin Mints might not win the day, though, except for a recently uncovered quirk of history. It seems that lawyers have found no proof in state records that the formalities of naming the bridge were ever completed. So, technically, it may not have been the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge in the first place.
“We hope that it’s going to be a naming, not a renaming,” Stephens said. “If this bridge never had a name, and we’re going to name it, that argument about us changing the name falls by the wayside.”
Unlike the Confederate leaders whose memorials have become flash points across the Deep South, Talmadge, a Democrat, is a figure of the fairly recent past. He died in 1946, shortly before he was to begin a fourth term as governor; four of the state’s six living governors were alive for at least part of his tenure in office.
His white supremacist views and staunch segregationism make for a troubling legacy. For example, he vowed to purge the state university system of any employee who supported “Negroes in the same schools with white folks in Georgia,” a stand that helped cost the state’s white colleges their accreditation. He staged an electoral comeback with a pledge to restore all-white primary elections. He used martial law to wage political turf battles, and he was implicated in corruption.
None of that stopped the state from naming a bridge over the Savannah River for Talmadge in the 1950s, when his son Herman Talmadge was governor. By the 1980s, that cantilever-truss bridge was posing problems for large new container ships headed for the Port of Savannah. So the state replaced it in 1991 with the cable-stayed bridge that appears in so many postcards and snapshots today — and kept on using the Talmadge name, perhaps out of no more than habit. And that, Stephens said, could create the opening for state lawmakers to give the bridge a new name, unburdened by having to formally remove the old one.
“For whatever reason, there is a huge resistance for us to start doing that, and making those changes at a later time,” said Stephens, who has sat in the Legislature through years of arguments over the Confederate symbols on the state flag.
If officials do find proof that the 1991 bridge was formally named, any proposal to change it will be “dead in the water,” he said, but “as long as you’re not talking about a renaming, I’m not running into resistance at all.” (Natalie Dale, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, whose board had the power to name bridges until 2002, said Friday that formal action to name the new bridge in 1991 had not been necessary.)
Gov. Nathan Deal’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bridge issue, nor did members of the Talmadge family. Over the years, lawmakers said, Talmadge’s relatives have warned legislators against altering the name of the bridge.
Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for the state House speaker, David Ralston, a Republican, said it would be “premature to comment” before a bill is formally introduced, but that it “would be considered through the normal committee process like any other bill.”
Juliette Gordon Low is not the only option on the table. Others have proposed naming the bridge for James Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as a colony; for Clarence Thomas, the U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, who was raised in Savannah; or for Tomochichi, a Native American chief who aided the early European settlers. When the Savannah City Council voted in September to declare that Talmadge was “not a reflection of modern Georgia,” it said the bridge should simply be called the Savannah Bridge.
Some people in Savannah, with its graceful historic district of Spanish moss and serene squares, have voiced concerns about honoring Low, because of the Girl Scouts’ record on race. The 105-year-old organization allowed black participants early on, but it did not charter its first predominantly African-American troop south of the Mason-Dixon Line until 1932, five years after Low’s death, according to the National Park Service. The organization’s jump into the politics of bridge-naming came less than a year after the Boy Scouts were criticized for the tenor of President Donald Trump’s speech at a national scout gathering, which veered sharply into partisan politics.
The Girl Scouts say their lobbying effort advances the organization’s goal of teaching young people about civic engagement. “We did not take any action until the city of Savannah took action,” said Sylvia Acevedo, the group’s national chief executive. “The city of Savannah wanted to change the name. Where we came in is, ‘Hey, you want to change the name? We believe very strongly that a great name would be Juliette Gordon Low Bridge.'”
To some in Savannah, though, the choice of new name matters less than removing the old one. And there is some hope, if not always an expectation, that the issue will be settled soon.
“They could name it for Herschel Walker for all I care, or Vince Dooley,” said Deaton, the historian, referring to two University of Georgia sports heroes. “But at this point, if they named it for Bear Bryant, I wouldn’t care.”