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The Story of Franklin, Tennessee’s March to Freedom Statue

The Story of Franklin, Tennessee’s March to Freedom Statue

For many decades, Franklin’s history was interpreted almost entirely through the lens of the wealthy white people who once lived here. Visitors to the town were regaled with cinematic Civil War-era stories of brave Confederate soldiers, beautiful socialite spies, and wealthy plantation families who hid in their cellars during the bloody Battle of Franklin, then heroically tended to thousands of grievously injured young men once that battle had ended. 

But there’s another, more painful history here that until recently was seldom told – one of human trafficking and enslavement, brutality and lynching, survival and success despite seemingly impossible odds. The truth is, much of Franklin was built on the backs of its Black sons and daughters and in recent years, local residents have worked with city leaders to bring their stories into the light. 

The project to do so is aptly named The Fuller Story. Led by three local pastors and a historian, the group has raised funds to add five new historical markers to Franklin’s downtown square, as well as a statue of an African-American soldier. The statue depicts a man in Civil War uniform standing with one foot on a stump, a rifle across his knee. But according to its sculptor, Joe Frank Howard who was born in nearby Paris, Tennessee, and now lives in Ohio, there’s much more to his masterpiece than first meets the eye.

It begins with the statue’s name: March to Freedom. During a panel discussion on The Fuller Story at the Franklin Theatre, Howard told the audience that the title of his work has multiple meanings. Yes, it refers to soldiers from the United States Colored Troops who marched into battle to fight against Confederate soldiers. But it also speaks to the reality that African-Americans had to continue marching for their freedom long after the Civil War ended.

“Before they fought, they marched,” he explained. “They marched. Before there was a Selma or any other type of march that happened where black people had to stand up for their own freedoms, they marched.”

At 73, Howard still remembers the days when Black residents were openly treated like second-class citizens in Tennessee. “I have some idea of what it’s like not to be able to go to a restaurant, not to be able to get served at a filling station to get gas,” he said. “I know what that’s like.”

After meditating on the injustices faced by America’s Black population through the decades, Howard found ways to incorporate their struggle into his sculpture.

“The way I have the soldier, I have him with his foot up on a stump,” he said. “That stump is meant to represent, as far as I’m concerned, the tree of sorrow — a tree on which men were tied to, children were tied to for sale. Not only were they there for sale, but they were there beaten with whips — we all know about that— and chains. They were sold and they were treated like animals.”

“The tree has been removed,” he continued. “The tree is gone. And I have the tree as though the tree is deteriorated. You’ll see the bark where it’s separating from the stump.”

Howard intended for the soldier’s foot on the stump to convey an aspect of hope, and an end to the injustices of the past. “With that foot on top of it,” he said, “this is not to be anymore.”

And there’s more. If you look closely at the statue’s base, you’ll notice a pair of shackles.

“When you look at the shackles, you see that the shackles are broken,” Howard said, “and that’s to show that they are never to be chained again.”

The bronze statue brought many to tears when it was unveiled in October of 2021. News organizations from around the world covered the ceremony, citing the statue as a life-sized example of what can happen when a city decides to embrace its entire history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and use the lessons learned to create a brighter future. Right now, March to Freedom is one of only a few statues in the U.S. portraying an African American Civil War soldier. In a town famous for its Civil War history, it seems appropriate Franklin is leading the way in sharing its very own Fuller Story with the world.

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